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Against “Gunman”

I made the mistake of trying to make a complicated argument via Twitter this morning. Here’s the longer, hopefully clearer version: 


Gary Marbut is the sanest, safest, most extreme gun advocate you’d ever want to meet, and I wanted to meet him. He lives in a geodesic dome he built himself on family land outside Missoula, MT, where he sells shooting range targets he makes himself and keeps a vast collection of guns that shoot ammo he loads himself.  Gary is a gun nut, but he’s also a gun safety nut, a responsible use of firearms nut, and not coincidentally, an excellent instructor in the safe use of firearms. He guided me from utter ignorance to shooting my way through a tactical course in a matter of hours.  Despite the fact that he is always armed — always — I would say you’re safer running into Gary Marbut on a dark streetcorner than you would be in a minivan with a teenage driver.

My day with Gary was filmed for the documentary I’ve been making for PBS on the US Constitution, and when it’s broadcast in May you’ll be able to see Gary (and me) in action on the gun range, and hear his arguments for why the US Government shouldn’t be able to regulate the manufacture and sale of weapons within a state. But during our day together, and after, I engaged Gary in a conversation on gun control. Gary, unsurprisingly, is not in favor of legal restrictions on gun ownership. He believes, profoundly, that an armed society is a safer society, and in an email to me, talked about how important it is for all the “good guys” to have guns, and know h0w to use them properly and safely, in order to defend themselves and others from the “bad guys.”

That division, between the good and the bad among us, is what underlies most of our talk, and a lot of our legislation, about guns. We can’t pass restrictions on gun ownership, we are told, because “law abiding gun owners” would suffer, while “criminals” would, of course, ignore the laws against gun ownership in the same way they ignore the laws against robbery, rape and murder.  I live in Chicago, where we have no shortage of “bad guys” with guns, and yes, it’s hard to imagine they’d be stopped by laws banning their ownership of guns. They haven’t been so far.

But I thought about this reading the New York Times‘ coverage of the shootings in Newtown. Time and again, they referred to the actions of the “gunman.” This is understandable. He is a man with a gun. And it would be horrifying if they were go by standard New York Times style, and refer to a “Mr. Lanza” repeatedly as he murdered 20 children and six teachers.

But that term, “gunman,” is the first, mild term on a spectrum of alienation that leads down to “monster,” “coward,” “face of evil,” any and all of which might make us feel better as we loathe and scorn Adam Lanza, and reject him from human society, but it’s also is a way of reinforcing that “good guy/bad guy” dichotomy.  You hear it now, from Rep. Louis Gohmert this morning on Fox News, and you will hear it more in coming days: we will have no choice but to arm the good guys because there’s no other way of stopping the bad guys.

As far as I know — and you should take everything in this post to be “as far as I know” — Adam Lanza had no criminal record, no record of hospitalization for mental illness, nothing that would have prevented him from legally owning all the weapons he used Friday. And since he didn’t actually own them — his mother did — let’s use other examples. Until the moment he grabbed his gun and killed his girlfriend, Jovan Belcher was a law abiding gun owner. Until the moment he shot Trayvon Martin, so was George Zimmerman. So was James Holmes until he opened fire at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. So was Jeffery Giuliano, the Connecticut retired cop who shot and killed his own son, thinking him to be an armed intruder. Actually, Mr. Giulano still is a law-abiding gun owner — no charges were filed.

I have no wisdom, and no prescription, and no advice as to what we as a country — who have decided, collectively, through our laws and our elected representatives to make access to guns ever and ever easier — can or should do now. I just make jokes on the radio about less important things. But I feel it’s important to remember: the villains, the bad guys, the ones we have to be afraid of and arm against, are, to a greater extent than we like to admit, ourselves.


(Sorry, my links editor isn’t working, so I couldn’t embed links to the stories I mention.)


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Apostasy Not

I was really excited to see one film this summer. And here it is:

I’m going to admit disappointment. Not necessarily in the quality of the debate; I doubt anyone on either side would complain their side wasn’t forcefully represented. To explain the nature of my disappointment requires some background:

In April, Dan Savage appeared before a high school journalism conference and made some comments about the Bible and about some religious students that walked out on him that caused some anger among the right wing, the religious, and the religious right wing.  Dan was accused of all kinds of things, including “bullying,” and a man named Brian Brown, who is the head of the National Organization for Marriage (the pre-eminent anti-same sex, or pro-traditional, marriage organization) challenged Dan to a debate, “anytime, anywhere.”

This was Dan’s response:

“Where? My dining room table. Place? Seattle, Washington. Here’s the deal: we can fill a room with my screaming partisans and your screaming partisans and play to our respective peanut galleries, as we both have a little of the grandstander in us. I feel that will create more heat than light. So what I’d like to challenge you to do is come to my house for dinner. Bring the wife, my husband will be there. And I’ll hire a video crew and we’ll tape a sort of after-dinner debate. You have to acknowledge my humanity by accepting my hospitality, and I have to acknowledge yours by extending my hospitality to you.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I was by this. Not by (necessarily) the idea of a real debate between SSM’s most important institutional opponent and its most, shall we say, vivid defender, but by Dan’s choice to be — what’s the word? — how about decent. When’s the last time in our continually expanding battlefield that used to be public discourse did somebody genuinely extend a hand, let alone a home-cooked meal, to an ideological enemy?  And I felt the same admiration, and even pleasure, when Brown accepted Dan’s offer.

That’s my porn of choice: two public figures being nice to each other. Go figure.

Anyway, the debate, as filmed and put on Youtube, unedited, was a come-down from the pre-bout hype. Not that it wasn’t combative, not that it wasn’t substantive (both of these men know their case law) but it was so… unpleasant. Whatever kindness the two men may have expressed to each other in the unfilmed dinner vanished; they retreated back into their respective corners and went at it, with the same unbending convictions they had going in.

Mark Oppenheimer, the moderator of the debate, felt the same way, writing:

It was dispiriting, but in an instructive way. Here were two Catholics — Mr. Savage born to the faith, Chicago Irish, the lapsed son of parochial schools; Mr. Brown of Quaker ancestry, but a Catholic since college, with a convert’s zeal — who could agree on nothing and could effect no change of heart in each other. They disagreed over whether Mr. Savage had the right to insult the Bible in front of high school students; about whether the New Testament endorsed slavery; and about whether the recent study by Mark Regnerus and its controversial conclusions about gay parents had any merit.

Every time they disagreed, I drank some more.

We can’t in the end be surprised.  The “Oh my god, what have I done?” moment we all hope for  happens only in movies, and other fables, and the number of public figures who have committed that sort of apostasy is very small, and those who do it are rarely rewarded.  Think about it: it would be inconceivable for Dan Savage to publicly change his mind about SSM. He’d destroy his career, his reputation, his own family. But it would be just as hard for Brian Brown; his career, as well, is based on his unshakeable advocacy for his cause.  What would happen to him if he said, “Hey, you know, let’s let gays get married, it’s no biggie?” He’d lose his job, his public position, maybe even his own family (we assume his wife, mother of his soon-to-be 8 children, agrees with his current views.)

In the end, we don’t really want our enemies to be convinced. We want them to be punished. I am a runner, and I often pass the time while running making Speeches at my enemies, real and imagined. I tell him or her or them how foolish and wrong they are, how ignorant of fact and devoid of decency, and I never imagine them agreeing with me. I imagine them… if I spare a thought for them at all… staring back at me, in angry silence. I don’t want an agreement; I want a victory.

So it is with Dan, and Brian, and the rest of us.  In the end, one of the two sides will in this particular argument will win (I’ve declared my preference.)   Society will change, as it always does, and SSM will become common or illegal, and those who are on the losing side will most likely go to their graves convinced they were right anyway.  And those who have won will be happy about that, because to we small minded creatures there’s no point in winning if you don’t have somebody you can say you’ve beaten.




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“I was surprised by the humility that coated that entire locker room. Matsui broke through the paparazzi to say hello; Sheffield offered to schedule a haircut for me; Posada made sure I had enough room next to his locker; Giambi, far from being defensive or silent on the topic, apologized for having used performance-enhancing drugs.”


– Doug Glanville, the New York Times, 5/10/12





I was nervous walking in, my first day with the Big League Team. My hands shook so badly you could hear the bats rattle in my bag. “Here,” said Hideki Matsui, reaching out a massive hand, “Let me take that,” I was surprised and pleased that he spoke neither in Japanese or English, but in Esperanto, which he had learned in order to welcome rookies of all nationalities. Gary Sheffield approached me, put a hand on his hip, cocked and eyebrow, and said, “That blow-dried look won’t work for you in the Show,  I’m afraid,” and immediately set up a Skype session for me with his own stylist inBrentwood.

Then I saw him, over in the corner, near the chocolate fountain. Jason Giambi, staring at me with sad, wounded eyes. He pointed at himself, then he mimed plunging a syringe into his own buttock. His eyes never left mine. It was haunting. I looked away, unable to stand the intensity of his gaze, and when I looked back, he was gone.

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The Constitution

I’m happy to announce that next week, I’ll begin shooting a four part documentary for PBS called (provisionally) “The Constitution,” in collaboration with director Stephen Ives and his production company, Insignia Films.

Stephen came to me a few years ago with an idea to do a series on the Constitution as a living document; that is, as it affects people here and now, in terms of civil liberties, government powers, and individual lives. Stephen knew he didn’t want to do a “typical PBS doc” — ie, David McCullough intoning narration as the camera pans over 18th century engravings of Founding Fathers. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

So he approached me to be the on camera host and narrator, and we’ve developed a plan for a show that will have me cris-crossing the country, talking to people both famous and obscure whose lives have been profoundly affected by Constitutional issues.

The Constitution has been invoked a lot in public life of late, sometimes, to my mind, tendentiously and inaccurately. (It is not true, for example, that if the Constitution does not explicitly name a function of government, then that function of government is unconstitutional.) The Constitution was, and is, an imperfect document, and its strength lies in the ongoing arguments about its meaning, as much as what’s in the original text. I’m looking forward to digging into this stuff with Steve and his talented crew.

And also, getting to ride a motorcycle.

The above link goes to a short “teaser trailer” that we did here at Navy Pier in Chicago for a recent convention of PBS programmers. Look for the real thing on PBS in 2013.

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On Dying Young

Andrew Breitbart died yesterday, and half the people who knew who he was mourned publicly and sincerely, and other the half tried to hold their tongues.  Some failed.

I was one of the latter group, and failed a little.  I follow this stuff for a living, and knew who Breitbart was, and watched his work with some amusement, some dismay, and some anger. He was responsible for wrecking or hurting a lot of reputations and careers, some of whom might have deserved it, some of whom absolutely did not.  He often lied about people, and accused others of lying without basis.  It doesn’t seem right to me, even on the occasion of his sudden death, to ignore this. Certainly, the death of a public figure never caused Breitbart to restrain himself from criticism.

One of the things that puzzled me about all the reaction was how often Breitbart was called a conservative or a “conservative warrior.”  He was many things, but calling him a “conservative” is arguable. By his own admission, he wasn’t that interested in policy, or even politics, in the sense of governance.  He was interested in the battle, in the fight between His Team and Their Team, and he was utterly devoted to advancing His Team’s cause, and running up the score, which seemed to be counted by scalps.  Ethics, morality, or even, really politics as detached from personality seemed to have nothing much to do with it. Is there anybody in the world who imagines, for example, that he would have said or done anything about Anthony Weiner’s weiner if Weiner had an (R) after his name?  Calling him a committed conservative, to me, makes as much sense as calling Lawrence Taylor a committed Giant.  He was a very, very effective fighter for his side, and most of the people who mourn him on that side (excepting those who knew him personally) seem mostly to be mourning his departure from the battlefield. Who will take it to the enemy now?

Other people have opined about his legacy and his role in coarsening our debate better than I can.  One of the things that bugs me is that the political battlefield has now extended into every arena, so that everything is fodder for fighting — my father in law, a staunch conservative, refused to use Heinz Ketchup during the 2004 election season. Once politics is interfering with your condiments, its no longer recognizable as politics. Breitbart was one of the many who made a nice living in the manufacture of brand new forms of brickbats.

And, of course, it’s frightening that anyone who dares stick their neck out into the public sphere now must needs expect to pay a harsh price, extracted by Breitbart’s role models, heirs and imitators.  I personally try — believe it or not — to treat people decently, even the people I’m making fun of, so that we never cross the line from satire to cruelty. When I die, I don’t want half the people who knew who I was wondering if it would be polite to say what they’re really thinking.

Speaking of which, I happened to spend an hour today talking to Jennyfer Gleason,  the widow of G. Chris Gleason, who collapsed and died just a few hundred yards short of the Philadelphia Marathon finish line, minutes before I finished the race myself. I saw him lying there, being treated by the EMTs who could not resuscitate him.  Like Breitbart, he died too young (Gleason was 40), like Breitbart, he had a wife and young children (who were waiting for him just on the other side of the finish line —  Jennyfer told me this part of the story and I started to weep.)   Gleason — to my knowledge — never attacked anyone publicly, never got involved in politics, never denounced anyone, and never was featured on cable news by bookers who know that denunciations make good TV.  He did touch a lot of people’s lives, though, as evidenced here.  If you’re going to think about the tragedy of a husband and father dying young, spare a thought for Chris Gleason.






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Happy Birthday to the Grand Rabbi of Westfield, NJ

I'm better looking.

People often react with a little bit of surprise when I tell them my older brother is a rabbi. They know I’m Jewish — I kind of lead with that — but I’m pointedly irreligious (as I once told a convention of rabbis, I’m an agnostic, which is an atheist who’s afraid God will be annoyed if He finds out) and while my peer group growing up all went to religious school and got bar-mitzvahed, etc, actually, you know, going all the way to ordination seems a bit de trop.  As an old Jewish joke probably has it, “A Rabbi? What kind of job is that for a Jewish boy?”

And yet: Doug was drawn to the pulpit, called, I think, not so much by a divine inspiration but as a call to service. His version of Judaism, which I’ve been privileged to experience at his congregations in Connecticut, Chicago, and now Westfield NJ, is far different from the dutiful, drab, and humorless rituals I endured at our shul growing up. Then, it was all about Rules, Duty, Decorum: a whole bunch of Requirements which existed, it seemed, to provide whole new arenas for  me to disappoint my elders. Doug’s version is joyful, expansive, celebratory, bright, and most of all, welcoming. You can read about his approach in great detail in David Hay’s memoir of his late-life bar-mitzvah, “Today I Am A Boy,” and David is only one of the many people who’ve approached me over the years to tell them about their experience with Rabbi Doug, the wise teacher and leader who helped them, taught them, comforted them, married their children, buried their parents, and yes, amused them — sometimes (I shudder to repeat this) even more than I do.

It’s a little odd for me — I mean, this is my brother.  I grew up with him. He tormented me, I tormented him back (one of the greatest triumphs of my youth involved a car seat and a half eaten apple.)  It’s strange to be among people who think of him with such gratitude, affection and respect. They talk about their Rabbi, and I think to myself, “You mean Dougie?” But who am I to argue, and so now I join them in admiration for a man who — whether or not there is a God to know or care — spends his days doing God’s work.

Today is his 50th Birthday. Please send him your birthday wishes in the comments, and once we have enough, I’ll send them on to him.


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Happy New Year

I am a terrible blogger — even with a new site! — but one thing I’ve managed to do is keep up a semi-tradition of New Year’s thanks to all of you for keeping me busy.

When I was a kid, geeky and odd and somewhat chubby,  the life I live now would have seemed utterly impossible in its wonderfulness. More than anything, like a lot of brainy kids lost in books, I dreamed of connections, of having a community. I eventually found various communities, through D&D and theater, most especially, and then college, but now, well, now, to quote Harry Bailey, I’m the richest man in town.  I’ve got a radio show, listened to by millions, and since we do it in front of a live audience every week, I get to meet hundreds of you each time we perform. I’ve got a Twitter feed followed by almost 50,000 interesting and interested folks — and many more have read my book and columns for Runner’s World and other things I offer.  It’s enough to give somebody a big head — why OF COURSE you listen to me, I’m FASCINATING — but one of the things I try to keep in mind is that your attention is a gift. The only truly finite resource we have is time, and I’m grateful, more than these poor words can say, that you choose to spend some of it with me.

I also want to give some public and fervent thanks to the people who work on Wait, Wait… with me: Ian Chillag, Michael Danforth, Eva Wolchover, Emily Ecton, Robert Neuhaus, Lorna White, and our benevolent overlord, Doug Berman. They do most of the work, and I get most of the credit. That’s unfair, but true. (Everybody should subscribe to Ian and Mike’s podcast, “How To Do Everything,” which is arguably funnier than Wait, Wait, which would worry me except I enjoy it too much.)   And of course, much gratitude to the inimitable, unflappable, indestructible, and hopefully immortal Carl Kasell, who has lent me his credibility for 14 years now and still has an undiminished supply.

For an equal number of years, I have been tolerated, coddled, protected (sometimes from myself) and even paid by the good people of NPR, most especially Margaret Low Smith. I hope I haven’t diminished the brand too much.

Torey Malatia and the staff of WBEZ, most especially the inimitable Don Hall, has provided us the warmest professional home we could ask for.

This last year began with JocoCruiseCrazy 1, and I am grateful to that remarkable band of nerds, most especially JoCo himself, as well as Paul and Storm, for welcoming me into their niche. One day on the ship, waiting for a show to begin, Wil Wheaton made a sidelong reference to the “the luck of Teela Brown” and I knew I was home. Thanks as well to all the Sea Monkeys for being kind and fun and appreciative and not at all crazy, except in a good way.

I never thought I’d be in a position to thank my agents — just like winning an Oscar!– but what do you know, I have agents, and they work hard for me, and I’m grateful to Tiffany Ward, Jonathan Swaden, Karl Austen, and  Luke Janklow for their efforts and their patience (especially their patience) and most especially Jessica F Bartolo of Greater Talent Agency, who books my speaking gigs.

“Runner’s World” treats me the way I’ve always secretly wanted to be treated: like an athlete. I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to their fine magazine, with many thanks to all the editors, David Willey, Sean Downey, Charlie Butler, Jenn Van Allen et al, as well as the many readers who’ve contacted me to express their appreciation, disagreement, anger, or just talk about running.

And of course intense, blubbering thanks to my family, my wife Beth and three daughters Rosie, Gracie, and Willa, who love me and welcome me home when I get back from spending all that time with the rest of you.

There are many others who I’ve spent time with this year, professionally and personally, each of whom have made me feel like I’m part of something larger and more interesting than myself, and I am grateful to all of you; I hope that I managed to let you know that directly and privately so that you know I’m talking about you, right now. Yes, you. You’re great. I’m glad you’re here, and thanks for everything, especially that thing you did for me.

One last time: all of you, who read this and listen and read my tweets are a nerdy boy’s dream come true, and I’m grateful to you. If you see me in 2012, come on up and say hello so I can thank you personally.








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Geek Immortality

Geek Immortality

It's spelled Carl Kasell, BTW.

Honestly, among certain circles, this is better than a Nobel Prize.

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My Hitch Story

One of the things about Christopher Hitchens is that he got around so much, knew so many people, and made such a vivid impression, that just about everybody is offering a remembrance today. Here’s mine:

In 2007, I was invited to speak at the Amazing Meeting, a conference of skeptics held every year in Las Vegas in honor of James (aka The Amazing) Randi, magician, debunker, and skeptic.  I was delighted to be invited because all  kinds of cool people show up there every year, including Penn and Teller, Adam Savage, Phil “Bad Astronomer” Plait, and of course Hitchens, who seemingly never turned down an invitation to speak, drink, and argue. (As a man who travels a fair bit, I am in awe of how much Hitchens got around.)

His presentation was terrific, and I particularly remember the All-Speakers Panel at the end, when we all got up on stage, and took questions from the audience.  One panelist — I think it was Scott Dikkers, editor of the Onion, though I may well be wrong — suggested that perhaps it was dumb for the US to be “at war with Islam,” and Hitchens, in just the way a lion notices a limp gazelle stroll in front of it,  responded “Well, Islam is certainly at war with us,” and proceeded to eviscerate the poor man.  As the little boy says in Jurassic Park, “Look at all the blood…:”

But: the prior night, I had had my own Hitchens time. A few of us were given tickets by Penn Jillette to come see his show with Teller, and Hitchens piled into conference attendee’s  Scott Hurst’s BMW (which, graciously, Scott let me drive) and headed over to the Rio. Hitch didn’t really know who I was, but lit up when I mentioned I had gone to college with his old friend Andrew Sullivan. I should also say the sight of my attractive wife seemed to increase his illumination. (Beth’s judgement: “Terrible flirt,” with “terrible” meaning “good.”)

The show was terrific, andI had been told that Penn and Teller always invited their guests back to a special lounge they had behind the theater, just for that purpose, so we should absolutely hang around post show for that invitation.   However, as Hitch, Beth and I walked into the lobby, we saw that Penn and Teller had come out (as is their gracious habit) to greet the entire audience as it left the theater, and Hitch made a mental calculation how long it would take for them to work the crowd, didn’t like the number he arrived at, and said “Come on, let’s go get a drink.”

And so we did, heading to the nearest casino bar. I told him as we walked I had been experimenting with the proper martini recipe, and he told me that he once did an assignment as a Cocktail Taste Tester for one magazine or another, drinking gallons of the stuff, and learned all kinds of interesting points about gin, vermouth, and the relationship thereof. (Not for the first time in this account, I will regret not taking contemporaneous notes.) The bartender turned his attention to me, and I ordered three martinis, as per Hitch’s well-researched perfect recipe, and he cried, “Oh, God no, not for me. I’ll never drink that awful stuff again. I’ll have a Scotch, please, a double.”

So we talked and drank, with my thoughts being drowned out by the inner voice, “OH, BOY, I’M HAVING DRINKS WITH CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS.”  We talked about the Iraq War, then in its fifth disastrous year, and which he famously and aggressively supported. I was not fool enough to argue with him, but I did inquire, gently, as to certain aspects of the war which, perhaps, had not gone as well as he and other supporters had hoped or even predicted. “I will admit it could have been handled better,” he said, which is much as a concession as I had ever heard him make on that topic.  He did say something which stuck with me: “I’m just glad we’re at war with someone.” That’s not quite as callous as it sounds here, without context… what he meant was that he saw militant Islam as a grave threat to Western Civilization, and that he was glad that the West had finally given battle.  One could argue that the “someone” in whose front yard the war happened to be fought wouldn’t share his gladness of its commencement, but again, like I said, I chose not to be that “one,” not then.

Eventually, after much chat (see note about regret re: notes) and drinking and smoking we walked back to the Penn and Teller Theater and of course everyone was gone… we had missed our chance to see the Secret Lounge. By this time it was near 1 in the morning, and the three of us caught a cab together back to our casino. Beth and I headed to our hotel room… Hitch, 16 years my senior, headed off to a party some of the younger conference goers were throwing, where I’m told he danced and drank till dawn.

We talked that night about having him on Wait Wait, but never did it. I’m not sure I regret it… three silly questions does not seem the sort of foolishness he would have suffered gladly, and I’m grateful I got to spend some time with him in his natural element, near a bar, with a drink and a smoke, with diversions and arguments ahead and behind.





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Come see me

I’ll be at the Philadelphia Marathon Expo on Saturday,  at the Runner’s World booth, from 3 to 5. I’m running the marathon the next day, so if you’re in Philly and you’re on the course, watch for a desperate bald man running by.

And I’ll be narrating “Peter and the Wolf” with Symphony by the Sea, in Marblehead, MA, on November 26th. Tickets and info are here.

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