The body count in the ongoing battle of Man vs. Wasp is now four — all wasps.
Today’s incident began after my daughters ignored two of my most commonly-repeated commands: “Stop running in and out!” and “Close the door!” Soon after running in (just moments after running out) the younger one yelled, “Dad! There’s a wasp flying around in here!” I crept to the living room to reconnoiter the enemy’s position and immediately noticed the still-open front door.
After I issued three separate and distinct “Close the door!” orders, my daughter finally realized I was talking to her and, amazingly, closed the door. Then she left the room so Daddy could deal with the wasp.
I put on my battle gear and went to the laundry room for a weapon. My wife recently accepted my conclusion that while organic pesticides are better for the environment, they can also produce unexpected side effects — such as being stung in the face by an orange-scented wasp — so there was a brand-spankin’ new can of RAID sitting on the shelf. I picked it up and bounced it in my gloved hand, enjoying the heft of it. Now that’s a weapon that inspires confidence.
I crept back to the living room and found the wasp flying around the ceiling, which is two stories high. No way to get close. I kept my distance and observed, not wanting to lose visual contact.
Finally the wasp decided to land on a wall at the top of the stairs. Great. If I have to retreat in a hurry, it’s a choice between moving quickly enough to outrun the wasp and slowly enough to avoid tumbling head-first down the stairs … which would probably result in the wasp stinging my newly-paralyzed body.
“Did you feel that, Mr. Human? No? Bummer for you. Let’s try a few spots above the waist until we figure out the exact point of the break.”
A little closer … a little closer … a little closer … just close enough now to ensure accuracy … maybe two more steps to ensure a sufficiently concentrated blast … Okay. This will have to do it. Time to open fire. I said Time to open fire. Hey! Stop shaking and pull the trigger, soldier!
“What the @#$% is this?!”
From this distance, the last can of RAID produced a six-inch splatter pattern. The new can was busy squirting out a pinpoint stream, which struck the wall about two inches to the right of the wasp. Fabulous … I’ve been training and fighting with shotguns, and now — in the middle of a battle — I find myself armed with a sniper rifle.
I jerked my aim wildly to the left, grazing the wasp, which still managed to achieve liftoff. Damn, they’re tough. By desperately shooting side-to-side, I finally landed a direct hit before the wasp could ascertain the origin of the fire and counter-attack. When it landed on the carpeted stairs just in front of me — still buzzing furiously — I beat it to death with the can. At some point in the hand-to-hand portion of the battle, the top of the RAID can popped off. I don’t actually remember it happening; but I had to repair the weapon afterwards.
I’m glad I keep winning these battles, but I’m starting to worry about post-traumatic stress.
PART FIVE, ONE HOUR AFTER POSTING PART FOUR
(No, I’m not kidding.)
This time it was a run-and-gun battle that spanned three rooms. Another wasp, once again buzzing around the ceiling, apparently on a mission to find his missing comrade. After a five-minute flight, it finally landed on the ceiling light in the upstairs hallway.
I armed myself with both the sniper-rifle RAID and the shotgun RAID, which was nearly empty. I crept closer and closer.
My first shotgun blast blew the wasp off the ceiling light. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it made an abrupt turn and flew directly at my head. I held the can in front of my face, pressing the nozzle non-stop, but I’m pretty sure at this point the can was delivering more air pressure than insecticide. The wasp was finally repelled just short of impact, then flew into the bathroom. It tried to escape by flying through the bathroom mirror. While it was busy trying to figure out what sort of strange window was blocking its flight, I reached my arm in and took a shot with the sniper-rifle RAID, barely missing.
The wasp flew at me again, was repelled by a weak blast from the shotgun RAID, then flew into the guest bedroom. I watched from the hallway as it flew random patterns around the room. When it landed on a wooden chair, I dashed into the room before normal intelligence could prevail and scored a glancing blow with the sniper-rifle RAID.
Amazingly, the wasp managed to lift off again, but then crashed to the carpet. As I was taking aim for the fatal shot, the damned thing scurried under the bed. When my daughters crawl into our bed at night and start kicking me (which happens most nights), I sleep in that bed. Now there’s an interesting choice for you … get down on the carpet and go looking for an angry wasp under a bed, or crawl into that same bed later, knowing the wasp may still be alive under there … or in the sheets.
Fortunately, a moment later I heard a little squeal of “Banzai!” followed by the wasp making a last, desperate attempt to overrun my position in a ground attack. I opened fire. After three direct hits, the little demon stopped moving.
The guest bedroom now smells like RAID Country Glade. I don’t care. The wasp is dead, and the smell of victory is sweet.
Before we moved to our small town in Tennessee and again shortly after, residents told us how much we’d love it.
“Y’all are going to be so happy here. It’s a great place to raise kids.”
“The people here are so much nicer than in Los Angeles.”
“These are the best schools in the state.”
“Wait until you see the trees around here in the fall. The scenery is gorgeous.”
“It’s the best of both worlds. You can be in downtown Franklin with all the good shopping, then drive for five minutes and you’re in the country, with horses running around in the fields.”
They were correct on all counts. The scenery is lovely, the people are nice, the schools are excellent, and the traffic is so much lighter, my ability to maneuver and simultaneously exchange hand signals with other drivers has atrophied.
However, after a year of living here, I realize they omitted a key bit of information. The full disclosure sales pitch would’ve gone more like this:
“Y’all are going to be so happy here. It’s a great place to raise kids.”
“The people here are so much nicer than in Los Angeles.”
“These are the best schools in the state.”
“Wait until you see the trees around here in the fall. The scenery is gorgeous.”
“By the way, during the summer we get some seriously BIG-ASS bugs.”
It’s not that the other places I lived were bug-free, you understand. There are bugs everywhere. In Chicago, I once moved into a townhouse that had just been vacated by a family of slobs who apparently considered it beneath them to clean the kitchen. I spent the first month conducting chemical warfare against an army of cockroaches. One of them even volunteered for a suicide mission that involved hiding in my slippers and inducing cardiac arrest. It nearly succeeded.
But here’s the difference: In Chicago, if I happened to walk into a dark room occupied by roaches, I was alerted to their presence by the sound of my shoes crushing them. In Tennessee, I’m alerted to their presence by tripping over them. If I found a roach in my kitchen in Chicago, I reached for a magazine. Here I look for a hammer or frying pan … and only because I don’t own a gun. I’ve even backed away from a couple of cockroach confrontations after realizing I lacked the weaponry to assure victory.
That’s the downside of living in an area with gorgeous, green scenery: The scenery is gorgeous because trees, grass and other plants love water and humidity. So do bugs.
One of the few advantages of living in the glorified desert known as Los Angeles is that mosquitoes were nearly non-existent. I could walk for an hour at night and return home without a mark. Not here.
This summer was, according to our neighbors, supposed to be light on mosquitoes. We had three snowstorms and record-cold temperatures last winter, which was supposed to decimate the mosquito population. Perhaps it would’ve worked out that way if not for the Great Nashville Flood of 2010, which blessed the area with countless pools of standing water. The mosquito population may have been decimated in winter, but the survivors bred like crazy in the impromptu swamps a few months later. Consequently, when I walk at night now, I have three choices:
Wear long pants and long sleeves despite the hot, humid weather
Spray toxic chemicals on my skin
Return home with my skin looking like a 3-D map of the Andes and feeling anemic from the loss of blood
During last night’s walk, a large bug with wings landed on the hand that was holding my Romeo & Juliet cigar. I didn’t scream like a girl, but I did a frenzied, Irish-jig sort of thing that ended with me retrieving the still-burning cigar from a neighbor’s lawn — about 50 feet from the site of the jig.
What kind of bug was it? No idea. That’s the other downside of living in a moist, lush area: I’ve been introduced to bugs I didn’t know existed. I recognize a rat-sized roach as a roach, and I recognize swarms of mosquitoes as mosquitoes. But at least a dozen times this summer, I’ve killed worm-like creatures with approximately 6,000 legs — always in the downstairs bathroom. I still have no idea what they are. I just know they like being near indoor plumbing.
Twice now, I’ve come across a species of exceptionally long-legged and exceptionally fast spider. Both times I saw this spider (once in the TV room, once in the living room), I attempted to kill it. Both times the spider managed to spring across the room and escape into a vent as I was chasing it. When a 5’11″ man with 34-inch legs loses a foot race with a 5-inch spider, something is wrong. If I had the same proportional speed, I could play for any team in the NFL and guarantee a string of 98-0 victories.
Last week I made the mistake of practicing my golf swing in the back yard while wearing shorts and chasing a wiffle ball into the bushes. When I woke up the next morning, my legs were covered with red, circular welts that itched like crazy. I looked like someone who lost a kicking contest with a gang of pepperoni pizzas.
Then there are the wasps. Like mosquitoes, wasps are hardly limited to the South. As I recounted in a previous post, I was stung twice during my youth in the Midwest, and in California, a wasp made a sortie in my direction after squeezing through an open window in the shower stall.
But in the past few weeks, despite being vigilant about keeping the doors and windows closed, I’ve had to kill three wasps inside my own house. I now keep my wasp-hunting gear — long pants, a hooded sweatshirt, a hooded jacket and winter gloves — laid out on a chair so I can slip into them at a moment’s notice, like a fireman.
Two days ago, my girls ran downstairs to my office to inform me a wasp was buzzing around their mid-level playroom — again. No idea how the flying demon found its way inside.
I put on my gear and went to the laundry room to arm myself with a can of RAID, only to discover that my wife had succumbed to the Go Green movement: our bug spray was now a can of “organic” pesticide made from orange-peel oils. I might have fallen for the Go Green pitch if not for the fact that she’d already informed me the orange-peel mosquito repellent she’d tried previously was worthless. So there I was, all geared up, imagining the results of spraying a wasp with organic bug-killer.
“Hey, thanks for the refreshing orange-peel spritz there, Mr. Human. Believe it or not, I’ll actually be dead in a few hours, but in the meantime, I’m just really, really pissed. You should probably commence screaming like a girl now, because I’m going to sting your ass at least 50 times before the orange-peel oil begins to weaken me.”
Fortunately, I dug around and found the can of RAID. It was nearly empty, so I took that as my primary weapon and carried the can of organic spray as a backup in my other hand. Shortly after I entered the playroom, the wasp — perhaps having heard warnings about humans wearing winter gear during summer — flew at me. I raised a can and sprayed, only to find myself noticing a pleasant orange aroma. Wrong weapon.
The wasp reacted by flying to the other side of the room and dropping behind a bookshelf. I’m pretty sure I heard it snickering back there. I tossed a toy against the bookshelf to try to roust it. Nothing. A few minutes later it flew out again, and this time I scored a direct hit with the RAID. Chemistry wins. Wasp loses. Orange-peel oil flunks battle-testing.
I love living in the South. I love the people, the attitude, and the scenery. But I’m praying for that first frost.
To: Mr. George DiPaolo
Director, Studio I.T.
Walt Disney Pictures & Television
From: Tom Naughton
Dear George –
I regret to inform you that after some serious soul-searching, I no longer feel it would be ethical for me to continue writing software for Walt Disney Pictures & Television, or for any other company. I know I recently reported being about 75% finished with the updated version of the DVD Trailer Management System, which was true (actually, it’s closer to 85% as of today), but for the good of the company, you should delete all my code files from the SourceSafe database and hire a real programmer to begin the project from scratch. You should also get rid of all the other systems I’ve programmed for Disney over the years, as it’s highly unlikely any of them actually work.
Bear in mind, I’m not quitting in reaction to anything you’ve done. You’re a fine project manager. The soul-searching began after several people posted notes on my Fat Head blog and YouTube channel, pointing out that I’m “just a comedian” without a degree in nutrition or any other health science, and therefore I have no business critiquing studies or challenging conventional health and dietary guidelines — especially any nutrition advice handed down by doctors, who spend several years learning to prescribe drugs.
Obviously, these critics are correct. For several decades now, I’ve made the mistake of thinking that since my college education consisted of reading books and academic papers and listening to lectures, I could become educated in other fields by reading books and academic papers and listening to lectures. So once I started doing research for Fat Head and became fascinated with nutrition science, I began reading like crazy. I ordered dozens of books and downloaded more articles and research papers than I can count. I listened to online lectures by MDs and PhDs, and sometimes even attended in person.
But it was all for nothing. As one of my critics informed me, reading books and research papers on my own doesn’t count as an education since I wasn’t supervised by professors who could correct the errors in my thinking. I must admit I see the point, even though I had a few professors in college whose errors in thinking were so profound, some of us wondered how they’d made it through graduate school. But they did, and that’s what really matters.
Which brings me back to the programming work: honestly, George, what the hell were you thinking when you hired me as a software contractor? Programming large, complicated database systems with dozens of end-users (or hundreds, in the case of the DVD Trailer sytem) requires an awful lot of high-level skill and knowledge. And yet you gave me those assignments in spite of the fact that I made it perfectly clear I never took a single programming class. If you’ll recall our first interview, you asked me specifically about my education in computer science, and I replied that I’d bought some books and taught myself how to write software programs.
So while I apologize for my role in all of this, you’re the one who works for Disney, and you’re the one who kept calling me every other year or so with another big assignment. You’re the one who let me program two of those systems in languages I’d never seen before, telling me to just order some books and get up to speed. (God only knows how messed up those programs are.) And you’re the one who offered to set me up with a remote computer at the studio so I could continue taking on assignments after moving to Tenneessee. So now that we know my programming work is illegitimate, you have to accept your share of the blame.
If it’s any consolation, you’re by no means the only one paying the price for my lack of formal training. I need to notify at least 25 law firms that they must immediately cease using my trademark and patent tracking software. Worse, several pharmaceutical companies must now replace the hugely expensive clinical-trial management system sold to them by a company that hired me to build it. Man, were they fooled … they told me I was the fourth programmer they hired, but the only one they kept. One of the owners even said, “I don’t get it. The last guy had a degree in computer science and every Microsoft certification you can name, but he didn’t have a @#$%ing clue how to build a decent system.” I have no choice now except to urge that company to dump my work, re-hire the guy with the degree, and rebuild the whole thing.
The really frustrating part of all this for me is that I’m not even “just a comedian” now. I never took a class in standup comedy either, so I can’t even go back to working the clubs and cruise ships. Since my degree is in journalism, I’m stuck with hoping a newspaper or magazine somewhere is interested in hiring a 51-year-old rookie reporter.
Anyway, I’m sorry for the inconvenience. I was really looking forward to showing you the new features I added to the DVD Trailer Management System.
p.s. – If there are any electric light bulbs in your office, I suggest getting rid of them before they explode and start a fire. Thomas Edison only attended school for four months, and his instructor described him as “addled.”
About an hour ago, I was sitting in the TV room, scanning through the on-screen guide, when my six-year-old came in to chat. After a moment, she looked up toward the top of a window and said, “Daddy, what kind of bug is that walking around on the glass?”
I followed her eyes, then answered, “Well, Sara, that looks a … HOLY @#$%!!”
I try not to teach her four-letter words, but the shock overcame my inhibitions. I hustled her out of the room and exchanged my shorts and tee-shirt for what is apparently becoming my official wasp-hunting gear: jeans, a shirt, a sweatshirt with a hood, a windbreaker with a hood, and winter gloves.
I went to the laundry room, picked up the can of Raid, and was dismayed to find it felt nearly empty. I gave it one little test squirt … okay, it wasn’t empty, but I hate going into battle with a flying demon short on chemical ammunition.
The window goes all the way to the ceiling, so of course that’s where the wasp was when I returned: right up by the ceiling, still prancing around on the glass. I climbed up on the sofa near the window and balanced one foot on an arm, another on the back. I extended my weapon slooowwwly until I was sure I close enough to guarantee a direct hit.
The wasp fell, and I was sure for a moment it would wind up behind the sofa, leaving me with no option but to get back there and look for it … thus assuring myself of an ambush by one very pissed-off wasp. Fortunately, the wasp landed on a window sill, rolled onto its back, and kicked its legs for awhile, calling me a mother@#$%*! the whole time.
It’s in the garbage can outside now. I would’ve written about this earlier, but my hands just stopped shaking a minute ago.
When I was a wee lad in Iowa, schoolkids trafficked in Black Cat firecrackers the way some sell drugs today. It wasn’t legal for kids to have firecrackers, of course, but everyone knew a supplier. (The suppliers, now that I think about it, were usually tough kids who didn’t do well in school. )
Weeks before the Fourth of July rolled around, we’d stop wasting our allowances on marbles, candies and other worthless junk, and start saving up for a personal supply of explosives. If you saved enough, you could even stroll up to a supplier and proudly announce, “I need a brick.”
A “brick” was the real deal: an entire package, all wrapped up in waxy paper, complete with a logo of a snarling black cat. When we tore open a brick, there they’d be … dozens and dozens of firecrackers, with the fuses twisted together. We learned right away to un-twist the fuses delicately, or they’d snap off.
But of course, we weren’t about to let the fuse-less firecrackers go to waste. We’d tape those to the firecrackers we could actually ignite and explode them together. That was also the preferred method for making use of a dud. By the end of the day, the fields near our house would smell like gunpowder and be full of little bits of firecracker confetti.
The paper that wrapped each brick included clear instructions on how to enjoy the firecrackers. PLACE FIRECRACKER ON THE GROUND. LIGHT THE FUSE AND MOVE TO A SAFE DISTANCE.
Yeah, right. In all my childhood years, I never saw anyone set a firecracker on the ground and move a safe distance away. In fact, we considered it a test of our manhood to hold a lit firecracker until the last possible second, then could toss it in the air just before the explosion. Our timing was generally pretty good … but unfortunately, quality control at the Black Cat factory wasn’t perfect, and some fuses burned more quickly than others. I went home after one firecracker expedition with my right hand in my pocket, hoping my parents wouldn’t notice I had two black fingernails.
But there was no hiding the splatter of ink on my shirt. No longer content to merely toss Black Cats in the air, my friends and I had started experimenting with more creative explosions. We blew up anthills, dirt clods, and empty soda cans. (The cans didn’t exactly explode, but they jumped a bit, and there was a satisfying WHOMP when the Black Cat went off inside.)
Then one of my friends had the bright idea of attaching a firecracker to a Bic pen with a rubber band. I had the bright idea of volunteering to hold the pen-bomb while he lit the fuse. The fuse had the bright idea of burning all the way down in a couple of milliseconds. I realized what was happening just soon enough to say a bad word and make a panicky attempt to toss the firecracker, then POP! – black fingers and a forerunner to the tie-dye shirt.
Mom wasn’t happy, especially since she made many of our shirts back then, including the ink-stained one I wore home. After confronting me with some rather damning evidence (the burnt gunpowder smell, in particular, was hard to explain) and eliciting a confession that I’d been playing with firecrackers, Mom stuck my fingers in glass of ice water, then gave me a lecture about a boy who blew off three of his fingers with a cherry bomb.
In comparing notes with different kids in different towns over the years, I eventually concluded that every mom in America knew a boy who had blown off three of his fingers with a cherry bomb. Strangely, none of us kids had ever actually met a boy with three missing fingers. None of us even knew anyone who knew anyone with three missing fingers. I could only guess that the missing-finger kid spent his life moving from town to town and introducing himself to all the local mothers.
I don’t play with firecrackers anymore, but my girls spent part of today delighting themselves by tossing little exploding caps against the sidewalk. Tomorrow evening, we’ll head to downtown Franklin for a free concert on the town square, followed by fireworks. I have fond childhood memories of the Fourth of July, and I hope they will too. I also want them to understand what the Fourth of July means. I’ve already told them about the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and how the fireworks represent the battles that freed us from British rule.
And when they’re older, I’ll make sure my wife tells them about a kid who blew off three of his fingers with a cherry bomb.
A few weeks ago, I walked upstairs to our mid-level family room, which is partly a playroom for the girls and partly my wife’s office. My wife was busy typing an email, and when I started to ask her a question, she said, “Just a second, let me finish this. Oh, and you might not want to be in here right now. There’s a wasp flying around.”
She said this with the same degree of alarm you’d adopt while informing your spouse that there’s a cricket somewhere in the garage.
“Excuse me, did you say … wasp?”
“Yeah. I saw it flying around up there by the ceiling fan.” Then she went back to typing her email.
I had three immediate thoughts:
If there’s a wasp in the house, it’s going to sting me.
I must kill the wasp before it stings me, although I’ll probably be stung during the attempt.
When I do get stung, it will be my children’s fault.
I blamed my girls because as soon as school was out for the summer, they decided to occupy their days with an activity parents refer to as “running in and out.” They love to be outdoors, but apparently never for more than five minutes at a time. So, like any middle-aged dad, I’ve taken up the habit of bellowing “Close the door!” every time they run in or out. I don’t even bother to look. If they’ve just run in or out, I know the door is wide open.
My six-year-old believes every parental command must be accompanied by a detailed justification, so she’d already demanded to know why she has to take time out of her busy day to stop and close the door every time she runs in or out — especially since she’ll just be running back in or back out a few minutes later. So I told her: “There are wasps outside. I don’t them coming into my house. If you leave the door open, one of them will get in here.” Obviously, she wasn’t convinced. And now there was a wasp in the house. The enablers were, of course, nowhere to be seen.
Just walking away and hoping the wasp would eventually leave wasn’t a possibility, because I have a history with wasps, and it isn’t pretty. Wasps aren’t like bees. Bees are cute. Sure, they can sting you, but it doesn’t hurt much and you have to give them a reason — like stepping on them. (Or, in my brother’s case, believing a rumor that if you cup your hands around them, you can carry them around and they won’t mind.)
Wasps, on the other hand, are little flying sociopaths. If they’re having a bad day and you happen to be nearby, they’ll go after you. And a wasp sting hurts like hell.
I found that out for the first time when I was 12. I was watching TV when I started hearing thumps on the outside of the house. I went outside and found some neighborhood idiots throwing rocks at what looked like a dirt pancake with holes in it, stuck to the underside of our roof.
“Uh … what are you guys doing?”
“That’s a wasp nest,” one of them explained. I was just staring to reply when some wasps dropped from the mud pancake and then swooped into a V formation, with the point of the V aimed in our direction. The rock-throwing idiots ran. I was also turning to run when WHAM! — I took a direct hit in the shoulder.
If you’d asked me before this experience what a wasp sting would probably feel like, I would’ve guessed something like being pierced with a needle. Not even close. It feels more like a baseball player studded his Louisville Slugger with a nail and then swung for the fences, with your body having the bad luck to be in the way. That’s because wasps drive their stingers deep — sometimes piercing the flesh — and inject a toxin at the same time. And unlike honeybees, wasps don’t commit suicide by stinging you. They can pull out and sting you again if they’re in the mood.
An entomologist once created a pain scale for various insect bites and stings. A bee sting rates a 2.0 on his scale. A wasp sting — which he described as “blinding, fierce, shockingly electric” — rates a 4.0. Naturally, none of the neighborhood idiots who were throwing rocks at my parents’ house were afforded an opportunity to agree or disagree with the entomologist’s description. Only I was, and I agree.
At least those wasps had a reason to attack. A year later, I was stung again during a class picnic in a park. We were walking through a covered structure that was, as I found out, home to at least one wasp. Nobody was throwing rocks, and nobody was close to the wasp, which attacked from a high, beamed ceiling. Apparently it just didn’t like seeing all those happy schoolchildren missing math class and, after looking us over, said to itself, “I bet the fat kid can’t run very fast.” I was also a victim of Seventies fashion sense: that is, I was wearing hip-huggers that left the top of my ass exposed.
WHAM! Nail-studded Louisville Slugger, delivered straight to the part of the hip not being hugged. In addition to the pain, this led to the embarrassment of being surrounded by curious classmates while my seventh-grade teacher — clearly no entomologist, in retrospect — spent several minutes on her knees, searching the top of my ass for a non-existent stinger.
Those were the actual stings that made me hate wasps. I’ve also had some close calls.
After my freshman year in college, my dad gave me an extra summer job: painting the exterior of the house, which was paneled with thick, vertical planks. I could use a roller on those, but needed a brush to paint between them.
So one hot day in July, I was standing on a ladder leaned against the back of the house, holding a small bucket of paint in my left hand and a brush in my right, applying paint between the planks. I pushed the brush into a gap where the planks met the roof, and as I pulled the brush away, I couldn’t help but notice a wasp was following it. In the next half-second, I tossed the brush and the bucket, jumped off the ladder, sprinted the few yards to our backyard pool and dove in. My feet only touched the ground twice.
When I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, I came up for air. Then I decided I should probably go under again, mostly because the wasp took my emergence as an opportunity to fly straight at my head. This time I swam underwater to the opposite end of the pool, then came up slowly. The wasp was still buzzing around the other end of the pool, looking for me. Occasionally it would land on the water and float there for awhile, then conduct another reconnaissance mission.
I kept thinking it would give up soon and go away. It didn’t. And that’s why, when my older brother Jerry stepped out onto the back deck some time later and saw me more or less hiding under the diving board, he asked, “What are you doing in the pool with your clothes on?”
So I explained that a wasp had driven me off the ladder and into the pool, that I’d been there for a good part of the day, keeping everything below my chin submerged, that I was planning to stay there as long as necessary, despite being fully clothed and water-logged, because the wasp was still flying around the pool and occasionally floating on top of the water, which in fact was exactly what it was doing now, and whether flying or floating, it was clearly intent on stinging me, which was also why I didn’t want to talk about it any more, since the sound of my voice could give away my location.
I explained all this by pointing and croaking, “Wasp.”
Jerry peered towards the pool, then retreated into the house without another word. He emerged a few minutes later wearing swim trunks and a battle face. He was also armed with a large plastic canoe paddle. He crept to the edge of the pool near the wasp, raised the paddle slowly over his head, bent his knees, then sprang over the water with a cry of “YAAAAAAAAAAHH!!”
It wasn’t Olympic form, but as Jerry entered the water in a horizontal position, he managed to land a direct paddle-smack on the wasp. Then, over the next 15 seconds or so, he landed 347 more.
The end result was one slightly injured and seriously pissed-off wasp, buzzing atop the water in a furious circle. Jerry splashed to the side of the pool, grabbed the net-on-a-pole we used for scooping leaves, and netted the wasp. He dragged the net to the bottom of the pool and left it there.
When I was convinced the wasp didn’t have a Houdini routine its in repertoire, I finally hoisted myself out of the pool and went inside to put on dry clothes. A half-hour later, after we’d spent the intervening time relaxing on the back deck, Jerry retrieved the net and dumped the drowned wasp on the patio near the pool. A half-hour after that, the drowned wasp buzzed angrily a few a times, then flew away. We didn’t stick around to see if he planned on returning.
That’s how tough wasps are. People who say cockroaches would be only survivors of an all-out nuclear war are at least one species short in their estimate.
Now that I think about it, my near-misses with wasps always seem to involve water, because the next one occurred in a shower. My wife and I were living in Los Angeles at the time, renting an apartment where the bathroom window was on a wall inside the shower stall. I opened the window about a half-inch one morning before showering, and as I was shampooing my hair, I noticed something squeeze under the window sill, pause for a second, then fly towards me. Wasp. The only reason I wasn’t stung immediately is that a stream of water from the shower knocked the little bastard off course.
This led to what was eventually known as the Scream Like A Girl Incident, which featured me scampering naked and wet to the opposite end of the apartment, arms flailing, eyes stinging from the shampoo sliding into them and — as the incident’s title suggests — screaming like a girl. (I recall something more like a manly yell, but my wife named the incident, and her memory of it is probably more accurate, since my brain was occupied with whatever hormones are produced during moments of primal terror.)
There was something of a repeat a year later, after we bought our first house in Burbank. Despite living together for two years, I didn’t yet realize that when my wife loses strands of hair while shampooing, she rolls them up and sticks them to the wall of the shower. (I didn’t realize this because she usually removes them on her way out.) I also didn’t realize that the steam from a hot shower can cause a hairball to un-stick itself from the wall and float in the air.
So I stepped into the shower one morning just after she’d finished — without my glasses, of course — and, after rinsing my face, opened my eyes just in time to see an out-of-focus black fuzzy thing emerge from the fog and float towards my chin.
This led to what was eventually known as the Scream Like A Girl Incident Sequel, which ended with my wife inquiring as to why I was beating a hairball to death with my shower brush and — as the incident’s title suggests — screaming like a girl. At least it wasn’t a real wasp. I never found the wasp that came at me in the original Scream Like A Girl Incident, and I spent days worrying that it was still somewhere in the apartment.
So, given my experiences with wasps, I wasn’t about to just hope the one flying around our ceiling fan would go away. In fact, it soon landed on the fan and seemed be to considering whether the metal housing, with those nice air slots, might make a good home. I could already imagine it flying out of there someday, heading towards one of the girls.
I considered going after it with a flyswatter, but then thought of a line from The Usual Suspects: “How do you shoot at the devil? What if you miss?” And missing was a definite possibility, given my batting average with the flyswatter.
The only other option was to spray it with insecticide — the shotgun approach. So I retrieved a can of Raid Ant and Roach Killer (Country Glade scented!) from the laundry room and started up the stairs … then realized this operation could end with the wasp driving a Raid-soaked stinger into my body. I needed armor. I needed to wear more layers than a wasp’s stinger can penetrate.
By the time I returned to the family room, I was wearing jeans, a tee shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweatshirt with a hood, a windbreaker with a hood, a scarf, and thick winter gloves. Both hoods were pulled tight, leaving only the area around my eyeglasses exposed. I would have to stand on a chair to get up near the ceiling fan, and my biggest concern was that if the Raid didn’t kill the wasp immediately and I had to run, I could fall down and find myself unable to get up … sort of like Ralphie’s little brother in A Christmas Story.
In that case, the wasp might not even sting me right away. It might strut around me for awhile, baggy pants hanging halfway down its little wasp ass, calling me a biatch. Then it would drive its stinger into my hamstring through my jeans.
I slowly pulled a chair to the area below the ceiling fan, climbed aboard, and stood up even more slowly. Son of a @#$%! I couldn’t see the wasp. Not high enough. I asked my wife to go to the top of the other stairway, which leads to the second-story bedrooms. She did.
“Can you see it?”
“Yes. It’s walking around on the top of the motor.”
I raised my chemical weapon slowly. “Okay … am I pointing the can of Raid at the wasp?”
“Are you sure?”
PHHSSHHHHHHHHT!! I sprayed for at least 10 seconds, eyes locked on the housing of the fan, waiting for the wasp to swoop down at me. Then I jumped off the chair and ran up the stairs.
“Did I get it?”
“I don’t know. I lost it in the spray, and now I can’t see it anymore.”
“Good lord, that stuff smells awful.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Right now I’m more concerned with knowing whether the wasp is dead or just really pissed off.”
“I’ll go see.”
My wife went down the stairs and, to get a properly elevated view, climbed on top of the table she and the girls use for art projects. It occurred to me that if the wasp flew out of the fan and stung her, I’d feel like a moron … even though it would give me a chance, for the first time in the 13 years we’ve known each other, to hear her scream like a girl.
“It’s dead. I’ll get it.”
She grabbed a paper towel, stood on the chair I’d abandoned, and swiped at the top of the fan’s housing. The wasp fell to the floor. She crumpled it inside the paper towel and headed downstairs.
“Use the garbage can outside. I’ve seen those things come back to life.”
And that was The Great Wasp Hunt of 2010. Meanwhile, another one has taken up residence in an area beneath the roof, just outside our kitchen door. I don’t use that door much anymore.
I was never a big fan of Weird Al Yankovic’s videos, but I love this one:
YES!! Go, Weird Al! We may not have much in common, but we obviously share a fundamental trait: we’re both grammar grumps. Every time I see 15 Items or Less at the grocery store, I’m nearly as annoyed by the sign as I am by that person in front of me stacking 187 items on the conveyor. I’m triply annoyed if one of those items is a box of food with a label advertising 1/3 Less Calories!
In case you didn’t already know, less and fewer have different meanings. So do number and amount, although a surprising number (not amount) of intelligent people use them interchangeably. It drives me nuts when I hear newscasters talk about “a large amount of people” showing up at some public event. I’ve been known to yell grammar lessons at the TV during such moments.
For the record, if you’re talking about something you can count, the proper words are number and fewer: A large number of people attended, but fewer than last year. If you’re talking about something you would measure — or can’t count – the proper words are amount and less: A large amount of manure passing for debate comes out of Washington, and I don’t expect any less of it this year.
Not sure if you’d count or measure? Well, here’s the convenient way to think of it: if the word is plural, you’re counting. Fewer calories. Fewer people. If it’s not plural, you’re probably not counting. Less fat … but fewer grams of fat.
Perhaps in the scheme of things, the difference between less and fewer seems trivial. I don’t care; it’s not trivial to me. Language matters. Precision matters. Clarity matters, and clarity isn’t possible without precision. Sloppy language honks me off.
Yes, I admit it: I’m the guy who emails newspaper editors to complain when reporters can’t distinguish between it’s and its. Again, for the record: it’s means it is or it has.Its is the possessive form of it … his, hers, its. So the dog most definitely does not wag it’s tail.
I see its and it’s mixed up all the time in emails, blog posts, tweets, Facebook updates, etc. I cringe a bit, but hey, we’re talking about individuals who probably didn’t major in English or journalism and aren’t working with an editor.
Newspapers are another story. Now we’re talking about people who are supposed to be language professionals, and whose work isn’t published until it’s been reviewed by at least two or three other language professionals. Maybe it’s because media organizations are now staffed by people who grew up watching TV instead of reading books, but I’m stunned by the number (not the amount) of errors I see in newspapers, magazines, advertisements, online news sites, and even in title graphics that appear on network news and sports programs. It’s a tough old world out there for a grammar grump like me.
I’m not sure why I grew up to be a grammar grump. My mom taught high-school English, but not until I was nearly finished with high school myself. In fact, she recalls sending my dad love-letters while she was in high school and he was away at college … and then receiving them back in the mail with the misspellings and grammar errors circled in red ink. (Amazingly, she married him anyway.)
So perhaps I inherited grammar grumpiness from my dad. He majored in business administration and ran his own company after a career in sales, but he had a professional writer’s way with words. He would occasionally ask me to proof a business letter for him, and I was always impressed with his clear sentences, the logical flow of his paragraphs, and the fact that I never — and I mean never — found a misspelled or misused word.
If I did inherit grammar grumpiness, it was honed when I wrote for the campus newspaper in college — thanks mostly to Harry, our faculty adviser. A retired newspaperman from the era when journalists drank at their desks, Harry read each day’s edition cover to cover, marking all the errors in red ink. Then he dropped the “Harry edition” on our editor’s desk.
We usually crept over to pick up the “Harry edition” as if it were a live bomb, each of us hoping our own articles would be red-ink free. That was rarely the case. Occasionally, Harry would even scribble a helpful note in the margin:
Tom – you stated that this technology will likely be adopted in “a couple of generations.” A generation is approximately 25 years. Do you really expect it will take 50 years to be adopted? Aren’t we looking at something more like 20 years?
Perhaps the most embarrassed editor ever to work at our college paper was the one who put this headline over a story: English Department Opens Grammer Hotline For Students. Harry’s note in the margin: They’ll be delighted to know they’re needed.
What a pleasure it was to discover that Weird Al has some Harry in him. I’m not ambitious enough to go the video route, but in Weird Al’s honor, I’m going to put on my official grammar-grump hat and list some of the all-too-common errors that would probably drive Harry to drink … or least stock up on red pens.
Don’t be jealous, but please be possessive … or plural … just make up your mind.
I understand the confusion with its and it’s. We’re used to adding apostrophe-s to make a word possessive. The dog’s tail was wagging. But I don’t understand when I go to a store and see that onion’s and apple’s are on sale. Or that there’s a managers special. (A special on managers? How many per customer?) And if I see one more mailbox telling me The Robinson’s live there … well, I won’t be outraged if some teenagers decide to play mailbox baseball. I’ll just assume they’re grammar grumps in a convertible.
They’re grammar needs work
They’re over there, and their car needs a spare. Okay? It’s not they’re car, or there car. It’s their car. And it’s over there. They’re sitting in it, planning a game of mailbox baseball. The Robinson’s better beware.
Your an Idiot
There’s nothing quite so satisfying as being called an idiot by an idiot. A couple of years ago, I made the mistake of participating in an online political debate with someone who believed insults trump logic and facts. We had an exchange that went something like this:
Thats not true! Your an idiot!
Yes, it is true. You can look it up. And it’s “You’re an idiot,” genius.
I am not. Your an idiot!
You’re. Not Your. You are an idiot. Not “belongs to you” an idiot.
No, YOUR THE IDIOT!
You’re missing the point. It’s a grammar issue. You’re, not your.
@#$% you, theres nothing wrong with my grammar! Your an idiot!
In a comedy club in Minneapolis some years back, I noticed an ad on the men’s room wall: A hot-model babe wearing sunglasses (and not much else), along with the logo for the brand of sunglasses, plus the words: When Your Ready For The Look!
I couldn’t help myself … I wrote down the name of the ad agency. I called them the next day and, after managing to convince a couple of gatekeepers I wasn’t a complete nut, got the account manager on the phone.
“I’m sorry, what exactly are you calling about?”
“Your ad, the one for the sunglasses. When your ready for the look. Y-O-U-R.”
“Yes? I don’t understand, is there something wrong with it?”
“Y-O-U-R! That’s like your dog or your car. It doesn’t mean you are. See the difference? You’ve got a huge mistake there in a big display ad that’s probably all over the place.”
“Oh, my … holy @#$%!! Thanks, man!” (click)
This was an expensive, poster-sized advertisement, you understand. That means at least a half-dozen people approved it … writer, art director, account manager, typesetter, printer, and of course the clients. Nobody caught the error. Amazing … and sad.
The last time I saw this particular error, a radar-activated highway sign in Illinois told me Your speeding! Yeah, I’m speeding … and your an idiot.
Don’t feel badly about it.
I feel great. I feel awful. I feel healthy. I feel sick. I feel strong. I feel tired. I feel optimistic. But I never feel badly, because my fingers are in working order. If they go numb, then I’ll feel badly. In the meantime, if I’ve insulted anyone, I might feel bad about it.
Sort of unique, really unique, pretty unique.
You can’t be sort of dead, and you can’t be sort of unique … or even really unique. The word means one of a kind. It’s an absolute condition — no modifiers need apply. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard newscasters talk about “a relatively unique situation.” No, if there’s relativity involved, it would be unusual or perhaps even rare. But it’s not unique.
Between you and I, if it’s up to you and I, it’s really up to you and me.
Okay, so as kids, we’d run home and say, “Mom! Me and Billy went to the creek and –” and before we could explain that Billy was last seen slipping under some seriously muddy water and frantically waving for help, Mom would immediately interrupt to say, “Billy and I! Billy and I!”
So now whenever there’s another person sharing any part of a sentence with us, it’s I, I, I … even when it’s wrong. It seemed to my wife and I that … between you and I … if it’s up to you and I, we should … Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Billy and I went to the creek. Yes, that’s correct, because you and Billy together are the subjects of the sentence. But you and Billy can also be considered objects together, even if you never move to California and visit the sex clubs.
Subject, object … let’s not get into diagramming sentences. Here’s the shortcut: remove Billy from the equation for a moment. It’s up to I? I’m pretty sure even people who slept through grammar classes wouldn’t say that. It’s up to me. Ahh, that sounds better. Now put Billy back where he belongs: It’s up to Billy and me.
As for between, remove Billy once again and substitute under for between. It’s under I? I don’t think so. It’s under me. And it’s between Billy and me, too.
Ain’t got a brain between them
Years ago a comedian I worked with had a funny bit about being arrested for drunk driving and then becoming belligerent with the cops when they took him in. (Don’t try this at home.) I’m paraphrasing, but part of the bit went something like this:
So I’m all stupid and drunk, and I turn to the cops and yell, “@#$% you, you damned cops! Yeah, you got the badges and guns, but you ain’t got a brain between you!” They all look at each other, and then the biggest, toughest-looking cop comes over, gets right in my face and says, “Look, punk. There are three cops standing here, see? So if you’re real smart, you’ll change that to Ain’t got a brain AMONG you.”
Between is a bicycle built for two. ‘Nuff said.
I realize that by picking this topic, I’ve pretty much invited everyone to point out every typo, every missing word, and every (egads!) misused word in any post I’ve ever written. Go for it. I can take it. I learned long ago that while I’m good at proofreading other people’s work, my brain sees what it expects to see when it’s my own text.
And if you’re a fellow grammar grump, chime in with examples of your own grumpiness. Maybe I’ll post another list.
Hmmm … interesting reactions to Arizona’s new immigration law, or anti-illegal-alien law, whichever term you prefer. Not surprisingly, politicians from my old state of California are up in arms about it. That’s because they prefer a different term for illegal aliens: future loyal voters — if only they can push another amnesty bill through Congress someday. Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, has called for a moratorium on city-related travel to Arizona, and several members of the Los Angeles city council have proposed that L.A. stop doing any business with Arizona.
Mexican government officials are also up in arms, labeling the immigration law “abominable,” “a violation of human rights” and “discriminatory.” (Hard to argue with that last one; we do tend to treat criminals differently in America.)
Given all the hubub, I think the only fair course of action is to scrap the Arizona law and replace it with a new national immigration policy. Here are the provisions it ought to contain:
Foreigners will be admitted into the country according to their ability to contribute to our national progress.
Foreigners will be banned from interfering in our country’s politics.
Immigration officials must ensure that all immigrants have the necessary funds for their own sustenance and for the sustenance of their dependents.
Foreigners may be barred from the country if 1) their presence upsets the equilibrium of the national demographics, 2) they are deemed detrimental to our economic or national interests, 3) they do not behave like good citizens in their own country, 4) they have broken any of our laws, or 5) they are not found to be physically or mentally healthy.
Immigration authorities must keep track of every single person in the country and assist in the arrests of illegal immigrants.
A National Population Registry must be established to keep track of every single individual who comprises the population of the country and verify each individual’s identity.
A national Catalog of Foreigners must be established to keep track of all foreign tourists and immigrants, and assign each individual with a unique tracking number.
Shipping and airline companies that bring undocumented foreigners into the country will be fined.
All foreigners with fake papers, or who enter the country under false pretenses, may fined or imprisoned.
All foreigners who fail to obey the rules of the country will be fined, deported, and/or imprisoned.
All foreigners who fail to obey a deportation order are to be prosecuted and possibly imprisoned.
All foreigners who are deported and attempt to re-enter the country without authorization will be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
Foreigners who violate the terms of their visas will be imprisoned for to up to six years.
Foreigners who misrepresent the terms of their visas — such as working with out a permit – will face prosecution and possible imprisonment.
Citizens who help illegal aliens enter the country will themselves considered criminals and face prosecution.
Any citizen who marries a foreigner with the sole objective of helping the foreigner live in this country will be subject to up to five years in prison.
Yes, yes, I know … it’s not exactly send me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free kind of stuff. Some of those policies come off as racist, classist, or downright harsh. So how can I possibly call them fair?
Simple: those are Mexico’s immigration policies. If Mexican officials think our laws are abominable and discriminatory, let’s adopt theirs instead.
With Earth Day coming up tomorrow, millions of American schoolchildren have no doubt been commanded to write an essay on global warming to prove they’ve been properly indoctrina– I mean, educated on the topic. And, kids being kids, I’m sure many of them procrastinated and are now scrambling to find enough information to put together the required thousand words or so.
Fear not, kids. I’m here to help with a Global Warming Q & A. Feel free to plagiarize at will.
What does “global warming” mean?
It means the planet is slowly getting warmer. According to some scientists, it’s happening because of something called The Greenhouse Effect. Here’s how it works: human beings are emitting a lot of carbon dioxide, so it’s building up in the atmosphere and trapping heat. It’s a bit like when your car sits in the sun with the windows up.
So carbon dioxide must be at record levels.
Absolutely. The current concentration is 385 parts per million, which, as Al Gore pointed out in An Inconvenient Truth, is the highest it’s ever been … except for when it was a lot higher.
A lot higher?! What are you talking about?
I’m talking about the periods in earth’s history that Al Gore doesn’t talk about. Actually, that would be most of the earth’s history, at least if we’re talking about the last 600 million years.
CO2 was higher than 385 parts per million for most of earth’s history?
Heck, yes. We’re talking about crazy-high concentrations: 4500 parts per million in one era, 3000 parts per million in another, etc.
Wow! It must’ve been hotter than blazes!
Nope, not always. Sometimes it was hotter than today, and sometimes it was colder. Sometimes the earth’s temperature plummeted even while carbon dioxide was going way up.
But how can that be? You just said carbon dioxide produces heat.
No, I said some scientists say that. But as for an explanation, apparently the laws of chemistry and physics changed over time.
That doesn’t seem possible.
Well, let’s try this, then: Carbon dioxide and the earth’s temperature dated for a long time, often breaking up and going their separate ways. But they decided to get married several thousand years ago and now travel together.
Okay, so at least in relatively recent times, when carbon dioxide goes up, it caues the temperature to go up.
Actually, the temperature goes up first, then carbon dioxide goes up. Carbon dioxide is so powerful, its heat-producing effects can go backwards in time.
But … uh … so is higher CO2 causing warmer weather in modern times or not?
That’s what some scientists say. However — and it’s very important you grasp this — it’s also causing record-cold temperatures like the ones we’ve had for the past few winters. So if you sit in your car on a sunny day with the windows rolled up, the interior of the car will become very hot, but also very cold now and then. And you’ll get more snow.
In the car?
No, on the earth. You see, according to Al Gore, the record snowfalls we saw all over the northern hemisphere this winter were caused by global warming.
I don’t understand.
Not to worry; Al explained it to everyone in an editorial a few weeks back. Global warming is increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, you see, so there’s more moisture in the atmosphere, which means we’re getting more rain and more snow.
But I thought global warming was going to create more deserts.
That’s correct … more rain and snow, but also more deserts. You see, if you mix higher temperatures with more moisture, you get a desert, just like in a greenhouse.
I thought the purpose of a greenhouse is to grow more plants, like in a jungle.
No, no, no. The earth is a special kind of greenhouse. According to the IPCC, global warming is making the dry areas on earth drier, but also making the wet areas wetter … except in really wet areas like the Amazon rainforest, where global warming is causing the jungle to dry out.
Wait, let me get this straight: the dry areas are getting less rain because of global warming, and the wet areas are getting more rain because of global warming, except for the wet areas that aren’t getting enough rain because of global warming?
You’re catching on.
But at least we know it’s getting warmer, right?
That’s right. The temperature has been rising steadily, except for when it hasn’t. But those are just decadal variations.
What’s a decadal variation?
It’s what global-warming scientists call a long period of time when there’s no rise in temperature.
Decadal … so that would mean 10 years?
Yes. Except there was a decadal variation from 1945 to 1975, and the current decadal variation has lasted for 15 years now. See, if the temperature rises for 21 years, that’s a long-term trend. But if the temperature holds steady and then starts dropping over a period of 15 years, that’s a decadal variation.
But what if the temperature goes down again for, say, 20 or even 30 years? Wouldn’t that be a long-term trend?
Of course not. That would be two or three decadal variations strung together. Totally different thing.
This is getting kind of confusing.
No, it’s simple. Let me summarize: carbon dioxide is higher now than it’s ever been except for it when it was several times higher, and that’s bad because carbon dioxide traps heat and makes the planet warmer, except for when the temperature goes down anyway. Meanwhile, the rising temperatures are making wet areas wetter and dry areas drier, except for the wet areas that are becoming drier. Is it all clear now?
No. That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.
Well, I’m afraid you might have a logical mind. It’s mostly a good thing, but it’s not going to help your academic career. Good luck with that paper.
My goodness. For months now, I’ve written about a variety of hot-button issues — global warming, health-care reform, media bias, taxes — and gotten a handful of replies. Last week I compared the vegan nutjobs who attacked Lierre Keith to the True Believers described by Eric Hoffer, then closed with one paragraph saying most True Believers in modern times have ended up on the radical left and BANG! — a roiling debate ensues. I suppose if I’d really wanted to generate some heat, I could’ve just written one line: Resolved, liberals are loonier than conservatives.
Well, I happen to like roiling debates, so I’m going to stick my hand in the hornet’s nest again and explain why I believe more True Believers have ended up on the radical left. It comes down to a matter of intellectual heritage, which I’ll get to in a moment.
But first, let me explain what I don’t mean by a True Believer: I’m not talking about anyone with strong beliefs. Yes, some people are close-minded because they’re swept up in a True Believer movement. As Hoffer put it:
It is the true believer’s ability to shut his eyes and stop his ears to facts which in his own mind deserve never to be seen nor heard which is the source of his unequalled fortitude and constancy.
But many people have strong beliefs because they’re well-informed and committed to principles. I was a liberal as a young man, probably because my parents were. They still are. It wasn’t a proud moment for me to fly home and see an Obama sign in their front yard. Now I’m a libertarian with strong beliefs, which I formed after reading quite a few books on history and economics. I became a libertarian by opening my mind, not by closing it. My parents, meanwhile, are still mystified as to how they ended up with three “right wing” libertarian offspring.
But even as a committed libertarian, I’d rather discuss politics with a well-read and committed socialist (and I had an actor friend in California who fit that description) than with a wishy-washy moderate. I can’t for the life of me understand people who voted for Ronald Reagan, then Bill Clinton, then George W. Bush, then Barack Obama. The media calls them swing voters or moderates. I call them people with no flippin’ idea what they actually believe.
Some have mentioned religious fanatics as examples of right-wing True Believers. If they want to impose their religion on others — if they want to kill the nonbelievers, or convert them all, or pass laws requiring prayer in public schools — then yes, I agree. But I also have friends who are deeply religious and know I’m not. Guess what? They’re still my friends, and they’ve never tried to convert me. Their faith is personal, and they have no interest in using the power of government to impose it on anyone else, or even in convincing their friends to join the cause. They believe … but they hardly fit Hoffer’s description of True Believers.
I’m also not talking about people who annoy you because they oppose your politics. If loud Tea Party protesters bother you because you support health-care “reform” and you really, really wish they’d just shut up and go away, fine. But that doesn’t make them True Believers of the stripe Hoffer described. They are not trying to impose their vision on anyone; they are protesting against having a trillion-dollar health-care “reform” package imposed on them. They’re resisting collectivism, not advocating for it.
If you’re more comfortable with a definition of True Believers that includes more right-wingers, be my guest. But I’m talking about Hoffer’s definition, not yours. With that in mind, let’s summarize Eric Hoffer’s description, some of which I mentioned last week.
They often have low self-esteem and are typically frustrated with their own lives or the world in general.
Fanaticism appeals to them because it provides a sense of idealism, identity and certainty.
They value the collective more than the individual and believe individuals should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the collective good.
They believe that by imposing their beliefs, they can bring about a better future.
They can ignore or rationalize away all contrary evidence, as well as logical inconsistencies in their own beliefs.
They consider anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs an enemy and want to silence those who disagree.
To that summary, I’ll also add more quotes from Hoffer himself:
Nonconformists travel as a rule in bunches. You rarely find a nonconformist who goes it alone. And woe to him inside a nonconformist clique who does not conform with nonconformity. (But enough about my decade in Hollywood.)
Their innermost desire is for an end to the “free for all.” They want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society.
Unless a man has talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden.
The explosive component in the contemporary scene is not the clamor of the masses but the self-righteous claims of a multitude of graduates from schools and universities. This army of scribes is clamoring for a society in which planning, regulation, and supervision are paramount and the prerogative of the educated
We all have private ails. The troublemakers are they who need public cures for their private ails.
The real “haves” are they who can acquire freedom, self-confidence, and even riches without depriving others of them. They acquire all of these by developing and applying their potentialities. On the other hand, the real “have nots” are they who cannot have aught except by depriving others of it. They can feel free only by diminishing the freedom of others, self-confident by spreading fear and dependence among others, and rich by making others poor.
Doesn’t exactly sound like a left-wing philosopher to me. But what raised such a ruckus was my opinion that most (not all) True Believers in modern times have ended up on the radical left. (Please note that modifier “radical.”) Here’s why I believe that’s true:
I’ll start with most destructive True Believer movements of modern times: Nazism, Fascism and Communism, which together killed more than 130 million people in the 20th century. One or two commenters raised Nazism and Fascism as examples of right-wing movements. Historical revisionists have a done a bang-up job of associating Hitler and Mussolini with some kind of right-wing ideology, but it simply isn’t true. They both had legions of fans in the U.S. before World War II — nearly all of them members of the “progressive” movement. FDR and Mussolini exchanged letters of mutual admiration for their economic policies. Before becoming Il Duce, Mussolini was a socialist agitator and a journalist for a socialist magazine.
As for Nazism … right wing? You’ve got to be kidding me. Hitler’s aha! moment came when he attended a meeting of the German Workers’ Party and listened to a lecture titled How and by What Means Is Capitalism to Be Eliminated? He grew to despise bourgeois capitalism and declared that “Basically, Nazism and Marxism are the same.” He only disliked the actual Marxists because too many of them had Jewish names, and because Nazis and communists were competing for supporters among the same groups.
Even culturally, the Nazis were hardly what anyone would consider right-wing today. Many Nazis were artsy-fartsy types who considered themselves mystics. Hitler hated Christianity and railed against religion’s restrictions on sex. He saw nothing wrong with out-of-wedlock birth and encouraged it. He was a vegetarian, a nature enthusiast, and spoke at length about the wonders of organic foods. Heinrich Himmler even supported animal rights — kind of like the nut-jobs at PETA. Take away the racism and the anti-Semitism, and a young Nazi could get together with a Sixties radical and have a real meeting of the minds.
The Nazi party platform proclaimed in 1920 contained, as you’d expect, a lot of demands to rid Germany of non-Germans, Jews, and other undesirables. But it also contained several other gems, such as:
We demand that the state be charged first with providing the opportunity for a livelihood and a way of life for the citizens.
We demand abolition of unearned income (rents).
We demand the total confiscation of all war profits.
We demand the nationalization of all previous associated industries (trusts).
We demand a division of profits of heavy industries.
We demand an expansion on a large scale of old-age welfare.
The state is to be responsible for a fundamental reconstruction of our whole education program, to enable every capable and industrious German to obtain higher education.
The state is to care for the elevating of national health by protecting the mother and child, by outlawing child labor, by the encouragement of physical fitness, by means of the legal establishment of a gymnastic and sport obligation, by the utmost support of all organizations concerned with the physical instruction of the young.
Crazy right-wing stuff, huh? Those idiots carrying the Bush = Hitler signs a few years back sure knew their history.
I suppose you could call the Nazis and Fascists “right wing” because they were militaristic and nationalistic, but by that definition, the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega would all be right-wingers. Funny how they didn’t have any fans among the American right wing … but they had plenty in Hollywood.
Now, let’s return to Hoffer’s description. We’ll start with dissatisfied with themselves or the world in general. I noticed years ago that my libertarian and conservative friends seem happier in general than my liberal friends. (Yes, I have friends of both varieties.) Before you protest with tales of all the happy liberals and miserable conservatives you know personally, keep in mind that polls have shown the same thing many times: self-identified conservatives are happier on average than self-identified liberals. When I look at what my liberal and conservative friends believe, it isn’t hard to figure out why:
Economic Opportunity Liberals: Big corporations are screwing us, markets don’t work, the good jobs are all being outsourced to India, the little guy doesn’t stand a chance anymore, and the rich (be sure to sneer when you use that term) are the “winners of life’s lottery.”
Conservatives: Work hard, study hard, take risks, be disciplined, and you can become a success because this is a land of opportunity.
Global Warming Liberals: We’re approaching runaway global warming. The ice caps are going to melt and New York will end up underwater. Millions will be displaced. Deserts around the world, hurricanes and tornadoes and floods, oh my.
Conservatives: The earth warms and cools in cycles and always has. Stop worrying about it.
Liberals: We have one of the worst systems in the world. Castro provides better health care than we do. Insurance and drug companies are screwing us.
Conservatives: We have the most advanced system in the world, and most people can afford a policy. Get the government out of the health care business, repeal laws barring competition in insurance across state lines, and the cost will come down too.
Now, I’m not asking which world-view is correct. But pretty please, try to be objective about this question: which world view is more likely to produce or attract satisfied people? Which world view is more likely to attract or produce dissatisfied people? And which world-view is more likely to attract “we must save the world even if it means taking away some freedoms” types?
As for valuing the collective more than the individual … do I even have to debate that one? Do conservatives write books with titles like It Takes A Village? Other than the occasional anti-war sentiment, the American left’s primary pitch to the voters for the past 70 years can be summed up in two sentences: “Vote for us! We’ll give you a bunch of goodies and make someone else pay the bill!”
Earlier, I said the far left is more prone to a True Believer mindset than the far right because of the differences in intellectual heritage. In his book Explaining Postmodernism, philosophy professor Stephen Hicks recounts that heritage.
What was once called “liberalism” but is now called libertarianism or small-government conservatism (not the same as religious conservatism) traces its roots to the Enlightenment thinkers, most of whom were British: Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes (not British), John Locke and Adam Smith. Their works emphasized rationalism, objectivism, the scientific method, and individual freedom — most importantly, freedom from government coercion. (Thomas Jefferson was deeply influenced by Locke.) As Hicks explains:
Individualism and science are thus consequences of an epistemology of reason. Individualism applied to politics yields liberal democracy … individualism applied to economics yields free markets and capitalism.
Post-modernism, which inspired much of the modern left’s thinking, began as reaction against the Enlightenment thinkers — ironically, in part to save religious faith from the onslaught on science and rationality. Immanuel Kant was a major influence, as were a lot of other Germans (surprise): Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg W.F. Hegel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (not German), Martin Heidegger, and of course Karl Marx. They specifically rejected reason and logic in favor of subjectivism.
Simply put, an objectivist thinks this way: If it’s true, I believe it. A subjectivist, however, thinks like this: If I believe it, it’s true. According to Heidegger, for example, reason tells us nothing important, and logical inconsistencies are not a sign of intellectual failure.
Now, once again, try to be objective (there’s that word again) while answering this question: who is more resistant to pesky things like logic and reason, an objectivist or a subjectivist? Who has an easier time ignoring logical inconsistencies in a belief system?
As Hicks points out, only a subjectivist could believe that:
All cultures are valid and equally deserving of respect, but Western culture is really bad.
Values are subjective, but racism and sexism are really, really bad.
Technology is destructive and bad, but it’s not fair that some people can afford more of it than others.
The post-modernists were also collectivists. Here are few relevant quotes:
The state ought to have a universal compulsory force to move and arrange each part in the manner best suited to the whole. – Rousseau
All the worth which the human being possesses, all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the state … this final end has supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be member of the state. – Hegel
A single person, I need hardly say, is something subordinate, and as such he must dedicate himself to the ethical whole. – Hegel
Hegel, by the way, was a big influence on Karl Marx. I’m pretty sure we can agree Marx was a collectivist extraordinaire, and it’s not even debatable that Marx has far more fans on the political left than on the right. One of my left-wing college professors even had a poster of Marx on the wall of his office.
Someone commenting on last week’s post pointed out that “left” and “right” aren’t always accurate labels and suggested I refer to them as collectivist-authoritarian and individualist-libertarian. Fine, I’m cool with that. “Left” and “right” don’t always fit. I once saw William F. Buckley argue against anti-drug laws, which isn’t exactly a right-wing position.
But at the same time, I don’t know how anyone can deny that leftists tilt towards a collectivist-authoritarian belief system. In the past year or so, I’ve been treated to these statements while debating liberal friends:
You only have the rights the government grants you.
How can you call high taxes legalized theft?! It’s not just your money! We let you make the money! (I’m assuming he meant no one tried to arrest me for selling my software to people who wanted to buy it.)
By contrast, take a look at this quote from a rather famous individualist-libertarian named Thomas Jefferson:
A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.
In the modern era, does that sound like something you’d hear coming from the left or the right? Is it what the fanatical Obama supporters believe? Is there any evidence whatsoever Obama believes it himself?
Post-modern leftists also have a different intellectual heritage when it comes to language itself. Since reason doesn’t tell us anything real, the post-modernists taught that language isn’t a tool for seeking the truth; it’s a weapon to wielded for the purpose of acquiring power. Don’t like what some objectivist-individualist wrote, but having a hard time disputing it? No problem. Declare logic a “white male construct” and apply the principles of Deconstruction … otherwise known as “If you can’t debate your opponent’s ideas, label him a sexist or a racist.” I see that one in action every time a conservative justice is nominated to the Supreme Court.
If you don’t think Deconstruction as a form of analysis was intended to be political, here’s a quote from Jacques Derrida, the father of Deconstruction:
Deconstruction never had any interest or meaning, at least in my eyes, other than as a radicalization, that is to say, within a tradition of a certain Marxism.
Saul Alinksy, whose Rules for Radicals was the subject of Hillary Clinton’s senior thesis, exhorted his readers to pick a target, attack relentlessly, and make it personal … and it’s okay because the ends justify the means:
Whenever we think about social change, the question of means and ends arises. The man of action views the issue of means and ends in pragmatic and strategic terms. He has no other problem; he thinks only of his actual resources and the possibilities of various choices of action. He asks of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work.
Gee, that sounds kind of like it would be okay to label your opponents as racists and sexists if it helps you win a political fight. I can see why some on the left found Alinsky so inspirational. As professor Hicks writes early on in his book:
A related puzzle is explaining why postmodernists — particularly among those postmodernists most involved with the practical applications of postmodernist ideas, or putting postmodernist ideas into actual practice in their classrooms and in faculty meetings — are the most likely to be hostile to dissent and debate, the most likely to engage in ad hominem argument and name-calling, the most likely to enact politically-correct authoritarian measures, and the most likely to use anger and rage as argumentative tactics.
Whether it is Stanley Fish calling all opponents of affirmative action bigots and lumping them in with the Ku Klux Klan, or whether it is Andrea Dworkin’s male-bashing in the form of calling all heterosexual males rapists, the rhetoric is very often harsh and bitter. So the puzzling question is: Why is it that among the far Left — which has traditionally promoted itself as the only true champion of civility, tolerance, and fair play — that we find those habits least practiced and even denounced?
As for who has a greater desire to actually stifle ideas (as opposed to merely labeling them as racist or sexist to avoid debating them), I’m sure that debate could go on forever. Some of you cited news stories about conservative groups shouting down or even spitting on liberal politicians. Okay, it happens, and it’s disgusting when it does.
But I don’t see many left-wing speakers being shouted down on campuses or having pies thrown at them. I haven’t heard of any cases of liberal college newspapers being shut down or having their entire press runs stolen by hostile students. I haven’t heard of any liberal college students being brought up on “hate speech” charges for expressing their opinions. I also don’t read many news stories about violent right-wing protesters, but you can pretty much count on violent left-wing protesters showing up any time there’s an economic summit.
Maybe that’s my own selection bias. But as far as who is more likely to be dissatisfied with the world and demand we change it, more likely to reject logic and reason, more likely to believe the collective is more important than individual rights, more likely to fear free competition, more likely to support regulation by an educated elite, more likely to believe they can gain only by taking from others, more likely to want public cures for private ails, and more likely to support using government coercion to impose its preferred way of life on others — in other words, to act like Hoffer’s True Believers — sorry, the radical left wins hands down.