Four Years Old

Athena woke up today to her mother and father thrusting a birthday cake at her and singing “Happy Birthday.” This confused her since she didn’t know that it was her birthday — we don’t tell her until it happens, partly because it’s fun to be surprised, and partly because this way it’s easier to manage expectations. She already knows Christmas is coming up; contemplating Christmas and her birthday together would be enough to cause her little head to pop. In a few years, of course, she’ll probably learn to dislike it because of the whole “one gift for Christmas and birthday” thing people will pull, but hopefully between now and then we’ll have a chance to impress upon her the idea that it’s not the gifts that count. In the meantime, however, we got her this really cool talking globe.

It will not come as news that I adore my child. Indeed, this is the position that one is assumed to have, and I’m quite happy to conform to expectations. Athena is exactly the child I would have wished I would have had: Smart, strong, stubborn beyond belief, and curious in all the sense that the word can be applied to a child. She’s also heartbreakingly beautiful, loving and happy (except when she not. And then she’s very not. But usually this passes quickly). She’s not a perfect child, just perfect for me. The idea that I get to help this quirky little human get a running start at the world fills me with a sense enduring and constant joy.

The bitterest of childless folks that marinate in various “childfree” groups online seem to think that feeling of joy is akin to getting a lobotomy, and as much as I’m inclined to dismiss that as the feculent bleating of the terminally selfish, I will grant that they’re on to something, even if once they’re on it they wallow in it. What they’re onto is the fact that parents fetishize their children, which annoys everyone else (even the folks who don’t endemically hate children for dark, squirrelly reasons of their own) and is really no good for the kids either.

But I think all this fetishism is something different from the joy I’m talking about. And honestly, I don’t know what’s at its root, since I don’t much understand it myself. I’m not likely to become one of those parents who schedules their kid’s life from 5:30 in the morning until 8:00 at night and who then whines, in a petulantly prideful way, about how much time and energy they have to devote to their children’s well-being. I’m certainly not going to be one of those parents who tries to block out anything in a culture that’s not child-safe, if for no other reason than that most of the things that these type of parents see as a threat are things I see as an opportunity to teach my daughter how to mock. It’s already working; when the commercials come on the TV, she typically turns to me and says “Would you mute these, please, daddy? These commercials are evil.” She’s well on her way.

A good friend of mine who is also a parent recently commented that as much as she loves and adores her child, there’s a part of her that misses the freedom she had before, including the ability to actually have a thought process that goes for more than 20 seconds before it’s interrupted by a little human asking for a juice box. And it’s true enough that parenting fundamentally means giving up part of yourself into the service of someone else, who is at first too young, and in the teenage years typically too self-oriented, to conceive of the idea that you also belong a world with which they do not intersect. Everyone remembers the disorientation we felt when we first realized our parents had more going on their lives that we had ever suspected. Now we’re on the other side of the equation.

I’m pretty confident my friend will figure out the right balance in time; she’s smart and if nothing else, in time the kids go to school, and you have several hours in a day in which you can link thoughts together without interruption. For me, it’s always been that what I’ve gained from being a parent has outweighed what I’ve had to put aside. This is partly due to my own personal inclinations — I’m not now nor have ever been one of the 24-hour party people, for whom the introduction of a small person would mean schedule crimpage, and the things I do enjoy are easy enough to juggle along with family. But I also simply suspect I’m one of those people who is reasonably well-designed for parenthood. At the very least, I can be pedantic, which suits having a kid. In the short term, at least, my kid enjoys hearing me rattle on about stuff.

I’m looking forward to the next few years. I was pleasantly surprised by Athena’s early childhood — I thought my assumed particular skills as a parent would be wasted on the infant and toddler years. I learned that they weren’t, and that the skills I thought I had were different from the skills I actually do have. And I do know that I already miss Athena as a baby.

But now Athena’s asking questions about the world — really good questions — and she’s at the point where she’s able to understand answers. And she asks a lot of questions. And boy, am I ready. Finally, all those years of learning pointless information are going to pay off, since it’s no longer pointless. It serves to expand my daughter’s knowledge of the world, and she’s loving the fact that her world is expanding. It’s fun.

I can’t wait to see what the next year brings for Athena and to us as her parents. We are blessed and lucky. And hopefully we can make our daughter feel the same way. We’ll try. It’s what you want as a parent: The hope, the effort and the enduring joy.

Happy birthday, Athena. I love you.

Al, Trent, Andrew

Some folks have written in asking what I think of various events that have transpired in the last week, so I thought I’d briefly comment on three of them.

First: Al Gore. I’m not entirely surprised that Gore has decided not to seek re-election (heh heh) in 2004, since if he did run he’d lose. He’d not only lose because Bush is legitimately popular in his own right now — although he is, and Gore would lose on that datum alone — but because Democrats now approach Gore like a stinky old-fashioned herbal medicine that you take because it’s supposed to be good for you, even though you suspect it doesn’t do anything useful at all.

Make no mistake, Gore would win the 2004 Democratic nomination, on the backs of hardcore Democrats who would pull the lever for him for the same reason legions of Star Wars geeks trudge joylessly to George Lucas’ latest betrayal of their trust: Because that’s what expected of them, and because if they didn’t, they’d be admitting that former investment of time and energy was a complete waste. Meanwhile, the rest of pool of the potential Democratic voters, who are not glumly enthralled by Democratic Jedi mind tricks, will get a look at Gore’s reheated visage and say: Screw this, let’s go catch The Matrix. Gore’s a loser, baby.

Anyway, Gore’s better off where he is. Right now there’s still a sizable chunk of people who feel vaguely that the man got screwed out of a job; better to ride that wave of disassociated pity to a posh sinecure on the lecture circuit and a kingmaker perch in Democratic politics, than lose unambiguously and stink up the room like the second coming of Mike Dukakis. And God forbid that he should run again and it comes down to Florida once more.

Second: Trent Lott. The Washington Post yesterday offered the tantalizing suggestion that Lott might resign from the Senate if he were pushed out of the Majority Leader post, a sort of “mutually assured destruction” thing since the Mississippi governor is a Democrat and would almost certainly appoint a someone of his own party to the Senate. Then all it takes is one reasonably liberal Northern Republican Senator to defect and it’s another two years of the Democrats sticking a knife into the Republican agenda and yanking vigorously back and forth. Lott’s people deny he would do any such thing, of course, but God. Who wants to cross that line to find out for sure?

I feel vaguely sorry for Lott, the same way I feel sorry for someone who followed the “greed is good” mantra all the way to an 18-month insider trading stint at a minimum security prison: It’s not that the person isn’t getting what they deserve, but you pity them that in their heart they don’t understand what it is they done that’s so damn wrong. Lott has apologized his brains out, and he’s under the impression that sooner or later all that apologizing is going to take — Americans are famously forgiving, after all.

But the thing about that is people prefer to have the impression that when one’s apologizing, that one is actually sorry about the thing they’ve said or done. Lott distinctly gives the impression that he’s apologizing because he knows that’s what’s required of him so he can get back to more important things, like ramming conservative judges through confirmation hearings. And of course it doesn’t help that every time he apologizes, another news story surfaces of him opposing segregation in college, or palling around with white supremacists, or suggesting the coalitions of people who’d like to box black folks up like veal “have the right ideas” about state’s rights and what not, wink, wink, nod nod. That kind of cuts the legs out of his whole “Racism is a bad thing” line.

Do I think Lott is a racist? Well, at the very least, I do suspect that Lott thinks of black people the way that conservative Republicans my age and slightly older think of gays and lesbians — that whole “why, this person seems agreeable enough, and look, I’m not even thinking about the fact he’s gay at all” sort of thing. The folks in this situation deal with gays by concentrating on the trivial matters at hand in front of them and desperately not thinking of that gay person in any other context — say, at home with their partners, slicing tomatoes for a salad or watching HBO or talking on the phone or having red-hot oral sex on the stairwell. Replace “gay” with black” and you get an idea of where Lott is coming from. It’s sort of like being told not to think about a white elephant, and so of course that’s exactly what you do. “White Elephant,” of course, being oddly appropriate here.

Do I think Lott should step down? Well, of course I do, but I’d want him to step down no matter what; as a general rule I’m against antediluvian helmet-heads laying out a legislative agenda that is inimical to any number of my deeply-held beliefs. This is just icing on the cake. But on the other hand, if he steps down (and doesn’t resign the Senate in a huff), he’ll just be replaced with another GOPer who does not have as many political liabilities. So as with many people who are not GOPers, I’m perfectly happy for him to stay where he is. He’s going to be a fine poster boy to motivate people in 2004, both within the GOP to root out people like him, and outside the GOP to punt the GOP back into minority status.

The good news is that one way or another Lott’s gaffe is costing him and the GOP. The question is the ultimate cost and when it’s paid up. I’m just as happy to have it later as sooner.

Third: Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan held a pledge week for his blog last week, saying in essence that if a certain small percentage (1% or so) of his readership didn’t kick in $20 a year, he’d roll up his blog and go back to writing articles for people who actually paid him money. Apparently the threat worked, since Sullivan is going to announce later this week that he’s cleared enough in contributions to keep his blog going.

A number of anti-Sullivan types have gotten themselves into a tizzy about this, but I’m really hard-pressed to see why. Like Sullivan, I’m a professional writer; I get paid to write. Therefore I can’t see what possible reason one should have against a writer getting paid. Sullivan’s had the benefit of seeing how other various revenue models have worked online, and he’s trying one that allows maximum choice for the readers and doesn’t require every single reader to consider paying.

So if people want to voluntarily pay Sullivan money, why should anyone else care? His not-so-subtle threat that he’d pull the plug might have seemed unseemly to some, but if the man doesn’t get paid for his writing, he doesn’t eat. If he can get some portion his audience to support the blog he enjoys writing and they enjoy reading, more power to him.

Having said that, I don’t think the average Joe Blogger should start thinking that Andrew Sullivan’s success extracting cash from readers is going to translate to a blogoverse-wide rain of money. Very few bloggers have Sullivan’s audience, and even he is smart enough to realize that he’s lucky if he gets 1% of his audience to chip in. 1% of most bloggers’ audience comes to a few dozen people, and most people aren’t going to be able to suggest a recommended contribution of $20 like Sullivan has. There’s also the matter of content — i.e., whether people have content that’s worth supporting with cash. No offense, but most don’t.

Outside of Sullivan, I suspect no more than two or three bloggers could actually extract a serious amount of cash from their readers through a “pledge week,” and those bloggers are the usual suspects of Glenn Reynolds, James Lileks, and possibly Josh Marshall (all three of which have contribution buttons but have not tried pledge weeks). Everyone else would get diddly, and yes, I include myself in that assessment. Right now, as it happens, I’m getting a nice flow of cash in from people buying the downloadable version of my current novel, but given the asking price ($1.50) and the numbers of my daily audience, well, let’s just say I’m not giving up my day job. Which is fine, since I like my day job.

(Speaking of which, the final bit of the Rough Guide to the Universe text is in to the publishers — I’m done, I’m done, hallelujah, I’m done. Now all I have to do is wait for the publication and the book tour. In the meantime, I have another “Uncle John” book to contribute to, and at least one other book project brewing for the year. It’s not a bad life.)


One of the nice things about writing something mildly controversial, such as the Big Bang and Creationism or Confederate idiocy, is that it brings in a number of new readers, many of whom are not familiar with my rhetorical style and are therefore shocked about how mean and unfair I am to whatever position it is that they have that I don’t. So let’s talk about being “fair” for a moment.

Basically, for the purposes of the Whatever, I’m wholly uninterested in it. Complainants about my unfairness have suggested that as a journalist (or having been one in the past), I should know something about being fair and objective. Well, I admit to having been a journalist now and again, although when I worked at the newspaper I was primarily a film critic and a columnist, jobs which were all about being subjective. So I wouldn’t go entirely out of my way to trumpet my own rich personal history of journalistic endeavors. I can do traditional journalism, and when I do it, I do a very good job of it. But it’s never been my main thing; opinion is what what I got paid for in my time as a journalist.

This space is not about journalism; never has been, never will be. It’s about whatever’s on my brain at the moment (hence the name), and it makes no pretense of being anything else. This gets written in the interstitial time between paid writing assignments; it’s meant to be a venting mechanism and a practical way to keep writing in a certain style — the writer’s equivalent of doing scales — so that when I do this sort of thing on a paid basis (it does happen), I’m ready to go.

But ultimately it’s all about me: I pick the topics, I comment on the topics, and the basis for the comments is whatever I’m thinking about the subject. I. Me. Mine. It’s all me, baby. What’s going on in my head is inherently unfair because it comes from my own, singular point of view; I don’t try to consider every point of view on a subject when I write about something here: I don’t have the time, for one thing, and for another thing I don’t have an inclination.

If you have your own opinion, don’t expect me to air it for you, unless you understand that typically when I present other people’s points of view here it’s to point out why they are so very wrong wrong wrong. Expecting me or anyone to validate your point of view out of the goodness of our hearts seems a dangerously passive thing to do. You have a functioning brain and an Internet connection; get your own damn Web page. Don’t worry, I won’t expect you to be “fair,” either.

But I doubt that many of the people who want me to be “fair” are actually asking for actual fairness, anyway. What they want is some sort of murmured polite dissent to whatever beef-witted thing they want to promulgate, something that implicitly suggests that their ideas have legitimacy and should be discussed reasonably among reasonable people.

To which my response is: Well, no. Your opinion that whatever it is you want to foist on the world is reasonable does not mean that I have to agree, or treat it with the “fairness” you think it deserves. Rest assured that I am “fair” to the extent that I give every idea I encounter the respect I think it rates.

To take the two most recent examples of this, by and large Creationism (from a scientific point of view) is complete crap; therefore I am rightfully critical of attempts to teach it (or its weak sister “intelligent design”) in science classes. Likewise, denying that the Confederate flags represent evil is pure twaddle and I’m not required to treat the idea that they don’t with anything approaching seriousness. You may not like this position, but ask me if I care. If you want me to treat your ideas with more respect, get some better ideas.

(Somewhat related to this, I’ve noticed that most of the people bitching about “fairness” to me tend to be conservative in one way or another. This makes sense as the topics I’ve been writing about recently fall into the conservative camp. However, inasmuch as conservatives have written the manual on how to demonize those who hold unconforming views — please refer to Newt Gingrich on this — this position strikes me as awfully rich. Not every single conservative person can be held responsible for the rhetorical attack-dog manner of many public conservatives, of course. But on the other hand, I’m not particularly moved by complaints of my mild version here. It’s like someone from a family of public gluttons castigating someone else for going back to the buffet for a second helping.)

I’m likewise not responsible for your reading comprehension of what I’ve written. I do of course try to be coherent — it’s a good thing for a writer to attempt — but what I write and what you think I wrote can be two entirely separate things. More than one person saw what I wrote about Creationists the other day as a general broadside on Christians and Christianity. However, had I wanted to do broadside swack at Christians in general, I would have written “Christians” rather than “Creationists” — the two words not being synonymous, after all.

Another good example of this is when I mention a particular stance is likely caused by ignorance. Well, no one likes to be called “ignorant,” since the common opinion is that people who are ignorant are also typically dumber than rocks. However, ignorance does not imply stupidity; it merely implies lack of knowledge. Ignorance is correctable; stupidity, unfortunately, is typically irreversible. The good news is that rather more people are ignorant than stupid, which means there’s hope. So if you’re ignorant, congratulations! You can work on that.

I’m happy to clear up any misunderstandings or offer any clarifications if you have questions; send along an e-mail, I’ll respond if I can. But generally, in terms of my writing here, I tend to be a strict constitutionalist — what I mean to say is usually in the text itself.

I recognize that a lot of people will consider my utter lack of concern regarding “fairness” here as proof that I’m unreasonable or disinterested in hearing other points of view, but again, that’s another assumption over which I have no control. Likewise people may assume that I’m exactly like I write here, which is also not entirely accurate; what’s here is just one aspect of my total personality, not the complete picture. It does no good to assume that people are only what they write, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it if you think that about me. I can accept a certain amount of unfairness. Life, after all, is famous for not being fair.