Preaching to the choir

Not too many conservatives read this blog.  That doesn’t surprise me — I don’t read too many conservative blogs, either.



And that might be the problem.

An old friend commented to me the other day that a recent post wasn’t the best way to gain converts to my cause, given my sarcastic treatment of those on the right.  I replied that I never expected it to, as I didn’t see them as my target audience anyway.  (Seriously — if I were invited to do a guest blog on a conservative site, the tone and argument presented would be completely different.  I do know how to convince people who are not on my side.  I am a trial lawyer, after all.)

But he’s right about one thing:  While these posts may give me a chance to vent (“Hi, I’m Mike Vent Fella”), they’re not designed to be appreciated by those who disagree with me.

And that’s true all over the internet.  Liberals watch MSNBC which confirms the biases they already have, and conservatives watch Fox which confirms the prejudices and idiotic nonsense they believe.  (See?  I did it again.  I can’t help it.)

Is there a solution?  Probably not.  I don’t mind reading conservative commentary when it is reasonable, but too often, these conservative blogs are insulting and demeaning and I give up before I get too far.

Which is probably what conservatives think when they read mine.

Reaffirming Last Year’s New Year’s Resolution

Last year, I vowed the following:

I resolve to avoid insulting my political opponents.

Oh, I may very well insult their views.  There are indeed members of the Tea Party that believe in absolute nonsense.

Here's a picture of Groucho Marx to cheer you up.

Here’s a picture of Groucho Marx to cheer you up.

I need to refrain from saying “That idiot twit Sarah Palin believes that taxes have gone up under Obama!”  I can attack her views without attacking her personally. There is enough ammunition for pointing out her mistakes without having to point out the person behind the mistakes.

I should have resolved to lose weight or something, because that would have been easier.

But seriously, it is just tremendously difficult to do what I tried to do, especially if you want to be sarcastic or humorous.  Sometimes a well placed insult can carry more of an argument than a simple argument.  And sometimes people really are idiot twits.

I have refrained from insulting people’s looks — while I admittedly can laugh at the Chris Christie fat jokes, I don’t think it adds a thing to a debate and is as irrelevant to his political views as is his race or sex, yet people who would never think of insulting a politician’s race see nothing wrong with insulting his or her looks.  I have at least refrained from stooping that low.  (Now watch — someone will pull up some old post from last year where I did just that.  I’m not perfect.)

Anyway, Happy New Year everybody.  Forget resolutions about yourself;  Make resolutions about how you will treat other people.  Even if you don’t meet them, you can try and as human beings that’s the best we can do.


9/11 Testimony

On this anniversary, there are many people remembering where they were that terrible day. (I was in Court here in Pennsylvania, 85 miles or so from Ground Zero.)

I’d like to share this, written by my good friend John Finnegan, who lived near me but worked in lower Manhattan. This is the eyewitness account he wrote that next day for all his friends:

Well I am doing okay. Yesterday, I said to myself I was over tired, and I am low on personal and sick time. I struggled out of bed for my inhuman 4 am commute and got down to the bus station. I said hello to friends and fell asleep as we pulled away.

I woke up at various stops along the way once we hit Manhattan. 10-15 people got off the bus when they called the World Trade Center. I proceeded on about 5-10 blocks away and got off at Water and Wall street.

I was at my desk by 7 am, ate my bagel sandwich, checked my email, then began to prepare for my 9:30 meeting. At about 8:55 my friend called me, and told me a plane hit the World Trade Center.   remembering-9-11-attacksI assumed it was a Sesna or some sort of little plane. I told my friend I would go look out the window from my 48th floor building and call them back. About ten of us were watching the tower. The fire was nasty but I though to myself they can get people out of it in time. It was clear to me though that hundreds probably died from that impact.

I was watching, all of a sudden less then 200 yards away a HUGE blue and grey United plane ( I could read the entire words off the side of the plane, it was that close) flew right by our window. I remember shouting “Jesus, it’s flying low. What the hell are they doing?!” It looked like it was gonna fly through the city and then it performed an astonishing near 45 degree turn and plunged directly into the side of the WTC. It looked like something from a movie, and I immediately though of that building exploding scene from the Matrix.

People started screaming, “Get out get out, its a terrorist attack, there may be more!” I remember running to my desk, yelling to the people in my group to get out of the building … a second plane had hit.

The elevators were jammed. I decided to hit the stairs. It took me nearly 20 minutes to get to the bottom. I had to stop a few times to rest. My legs were on fire and I didn’t think they could support me.

At the bottom, the lobby was filled with people, some crying … but there was an incredible level of support. I sat down to rest, and someone offered me water … they had apparently bought a bag full to hand out to people. I said I was fine.

I got up eventually, and I went to the bank in my building and took out a couple hundred of dollars … thinking I didn’t know what would happen. The streets were filled with people, all moving north away from the area. I didn’t know what to do. I walked a couple blocks hoping to catch a bus heading back to Pennsylvania where we recently moved.

I bought two huge waters. It was getting hot out.

I got lucky, a lot luckier than a lot of people. Four blocks up I saw my bus company, and a got onto the bus. With me was just the bus driver.

The bus driver and I talked, his bus was under the North tower when the second plane hit. He helped the police block traffic so they could get in the emergency vehicles. He got out of dodge and took nearly an hour to get down to Wall Street.

He let me use his cell phone to call my wife. The lines were completely blocked. There was no way to get a call out. We moved down South Street with all the other traffic the wrong way, inching away from the area as hundreds of people moved down the street.

It was amazing. I watched them for nearly an hour. Most were in good spirits, some with a look of complete awe on their faces, some with a cold stare of disbelief, fear occasionally flashing upon their faces. People starting wearing things over their faces, t-shirts and masks. We heard an explosion, we heard people saying the entire tower collapsed. Minutes later, people started running. Dust rolled into the area … 15 blocks from the Twin Towers. More riders got on. I tried another telephone. I didn’t get through.

The bus driver talked to dispatch. He parked his van, and I discovered they had closed the city. I discovered the Pentagon had been attacked. Someone said they bombed a church up near the tower. I saw people covered in dust and grey cement. The police locked down the entire area. The bus driver’s wife got through to his cell phone. He asked his wife to call mine. I discovered that he had to leave his bus and move to a safer area on foot.

We saw too many bomb squad people coming through the area. Up ahead some heavy police activity was going on. We discovered the entire city was locked down. They suspended bus service from Pennsylvania for 7 hours. There wasn’t any way I was gonna get out of the city this way.

We left the bus. Two of the passengers said their company owned a hotel. They invited me to come with them. I wished them well but said I would figure something else out. I wasn’t gonna be able to walk 30 blocks uptown.

I was under the Manhattan bridge. I looked over towards Brooklyn. It was a long way. I headed north for awhile, and pushed through Chinatown. People were in little bands, lad by a manager or coworker. It was like I was on the Oregon trail. I bought another water, the other two were long gone. I got worried about looters. I wasn’t in the nicest neighborhood. I eventually got to the bridge.

People were crossing it in unbelievable numbers. Thousands. One of my best friends has an apartment in the sole nice corner of DUMBO (District Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). I thought I should try to make it there. Never did I ever think I would shoot to get to Brooklyn for safety. The entire walk so far I thought, my friend Steve (whose apartment I was shooting for) works in the Borders bookstore below the North tower of the World Trade center.

I could be walking into a situation where he was dead and his girlfriend (one of my wife’s best friends) was nearly unconsolable. I thought it would be a good idea to be there for her, and get the hell out of this city.

My legs were killing me. I thought about another plane hitting the bridge as I crossed. Seemed like good odds. As I took breaks crossing the bridge, people would stop and say, “You okay, man?” Didn’t matter what ethnic group they were, didn’t matter what I was. Some guy offerred me a sandwich, someone offered me water. People seemed in good spirits. People gave a shit about each other for the first time I ever saw in New York. People were angry, people wanted a reckoning. Staring at the sky line, I kept thinking … where the hell is New York … the buildings are just gone!

I pressed on, and eventually 2-3 more miles later got to their door. I paused as I went to knock. I could barely stand and she came out to look at the enormous cloud billowing into the sky. I begged her to tell me Steve wasn’t at work today, Steve came out. His shift didn’t start until 1:30. They told me they’d been expecting me, where the hell else was I going to go?

I watched TV for four hours. Steve cooked us a good lunch. Four cats crawled all over me. I knocked her bras off the doorknob in the bathroom. We talked about what happened and made out guesses. They made me watch the first episode of Farscape because my wife hates it and hates to watch it. They had talked to my wife already, the bus drivers wife called her but it sounded like I was in the bus under the World Trade Center. We couldn’t call out, she called crying. Everything was ok. My dad called me a few minutes later, my brother got in touch later with my Mom. I was prepared to crash there for the night.

On a whim, I called a car service I knew and asked them if they would get me home to Pennsylvania and how much. “200 bucks,” they said, I said come get me.

As the driver and I pulled into my Park and Ride two hours later in Pennsylvania, I stared at all the cars in the parking lot. There were few if any empty spots. It was 9 PM. No one else who commuttes with me had gotten home. Hundreds of cars filled the parking lot. I was one of the lucky ones.

I could barely walk but I got home in the car 30 minutes later. I took it slow, figuring it would be my luck to plaster a deer or moose along the way home. Even today I can’t walk too well, I feel as if someone had tried to rip my legs off for about four hours.

I still pondered what occurred to me last night as I climbed into my car to go home I remembered around six in the morning the driver calling out “World Trade Center”. I remember 10-15 people getting off…

When I lived in Brooklyn, we would often go to the roof of our building in DUMBO, about a block from the East River, and watch the fireworks burst around the towers on holidays. I even did some temp work in the towers for a while. It’s still hard to realize that they are not there.

Childless by choice

Today is my 32nd wedding anniversary.  Coincidentally, it is also my wife’s.  (She’s the amazing award-winning artist Heidi Hooper, in case you didn’t know.)

It’s astounding we have lasted this long given that we have no children. After all, as the anti-marriage people keep telling the courts, marriage is all about procreation and that’s why we can’t allow those gays and lesbians to have equal rights.  Fortunately, each subsequent court’s laughter at this argument grows exponentially.  mike and heidi

We always knew we wanted to be like this — not because we hate kids, but because we wanted to do other things in our lives.  If you have children, that becomes your life.  Other things you may have wanted to get done get put on the back burner (or should be, anyway — your kids should be your first priority.)

I think I would have made a good father, but if I had, I probably wouldn’t have taken many of the risks I took in life — starting businesses, moving fairly constantly, and otherwise always trying to better myself.  Heidi probably wouldn’t have gone back to get her master’s degree if we had children to care for (and pay for).  Our lives would have been completely different.  Not worse, just different.

That’s just the choice we made.  It was frustrating at first when family members constantly asked when we were having children (Well, mostly Heidi’s family — a very traditional, southern family who still can’t acknowledge after 32 years that her name is not “Heidi Ventrella”).

More and more couples I know these days are not having children, and that is absolutely fine.  I am thrilled for my friends who have happy families, and thrilled for those who don’t.  There is nothing wrong with deciding not to reproduce.  Those who say childless couples are “selfish” for not repopulating the world in their image are very insulting.  I could counter that those who have children are selfish for contributing to overpopulation, but that is just as stupid an argument.

Ironically enough, sometimes these people who think there is something wrong with not having children would never think to criticize gay and lesbian couples for their “lifestyle choice” (even though that’s not really a choice).  Not having kids is also a lifestyle choice, and should also be respected.   These critics would never think to shame a gay couple for not adopting, but feel just fine looking down on a straight couple that decides not to have kids.

Anyway, Happy Anniversary, Heidi!  May we celebrate another 32 together.  Childless.


How to be a skeptic

In this day and age, with internet memes and political extremists spouting accusations through cable TV and talk radio, it is very good to be a skeptic.

But there is one difficult requirement:  You have to be a skeptic about things you desperately want to be true.  Otherwise, you’re a hypocrite.   cleese

When I was in high school, I was the skeptical kid who challenged the mainstream, especially about religion.  I thought that being cynical and skeptical was the duty of  an intelligent thinker.  That’s how science works, after all.

“I refuse to believe without proof,” I’d say.  And then I’d go and read all the books about UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle and Chariots of the Gods.

Over time, I started realizing that I could not claim to be an intellectual skeptic if I was only skeptical about things I really didn’t believe anyway.  I needed to be skeptical about everything, and especially the stuff I wanted to be true.

I see this all the time in the political and religious debates I have.  People are skeptical about claims made by their political opponents but blindly swallow anything said by those whose views match their own.  Liberals believe all sorts of crazy memes that pop up about Sarah Palin even though most of them are false.  Conservatives believe all kinds of stupid things about Obama that they would never accept if said about one of their own politicians.  Religious folks believe all sorts of things said by their God while laughing at the crazy things people in other religions believe about their God.

You can’t have it both ways.

Being skeptical is an important part of life — it’s how you don’t fall prey to charlatans and people who want to take advantage of you.  It’s how you learn, because you research and find out for yourself what the truth is.

But you have to be an equal opportunity skeptic and realize that people on your side exaggerate and lie, too.  And you have to be smart about it.

“I am a skeptic,” you may say.  “I am skeptical that 97% of all climate scientists think there is climate change.”  No, you’re just being willfully ignorant.  You are aiming your skepticism only in one direction.  You are only being skeptical about things that benefit you and are refusing to be skeptical about your side.   You need to inform yourself and look at the evidence you like with the same skeptical eye as the evidence you don’t like.

Otherwise, you’re just a hypocrite.


New Year’s Resolution

I don’t usually do New Years resolutions, being practically perfect in every way*, but there is one I think I need to make.happy-2014-new-year-3D-Images

I resolve to avoid insulting my political opponents.

Oh, I may very well insult their views.  There are indeed members of the Tea Party that believe in absolute nonsense.

I need to refrain from saying “That idiot twit Sarah Palin believes that taxes have gone up under Obama!”  I can attack her views without attacking her personally. There is enough ammunition for pointing out her mistakes without having to point out the person behind the mistakes.

This may be a difficult resolution to make, because sometimes it is hard to separate the stupid thing from the person saying the stupid thing.  But I think all political discourse would be better if everyone stopped insulting the other side personally (“I can’t stand Obummer the Muslim!”), and instead just insult their views — because views can change.

We’ll see how successful I can be.

So happy New Year’s Everybody!  Happy New Year even to those freaking idiots Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachmann, and the rest of the neanderthal numbskulls standing in the way of progress.

Hey, I still have one day left.

* that was sarcasm

Life Lessons #4: Luck and Work

“I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more luck I have.”

I always loved that quote. Turns out it’s not from Thomas Jefferson, even though it seems to always be credited to him, and seems to have first appeared in the 1940s.

But it’s true.

Often people are surprised at all the projects I have going — keeping a law practice, having novels published, running an international game, working in politics, writing two blogs — and ask how I find time for all of these things.

Well, I don’t know. I just do them. Often these same people tell me about all the great TV shows, video games, and movies I am missing, and while they are right, that’s just a choice I have made. I’d rather spend my time working on these other projects.

And it’s not like these things are hard work. I really like doing all these things or I wouldn’t do them.

I’m not trying to tell anyone how to have fun in their life. You do what makes you happy — that’s what life is all about.

But I know people who could write great novels or accomplish other great things, but they just don’t do it. They start a project and never finish.

Yeah, there really is work involved.

Life Lessons #3: Being healthy

It’s always nice when people say that I do not look my age. When they ask me why, I say, “no children.”

While there is a grain of truth in that, I think the real reason is slightly more complicated.

First: Genetics. Never underestimate the power of your parents. Whether you are short, tall, fat, slim, good-looking or ugly has an awful lot to do with your genes. Those people in the commercials who tell you that if you just followed their exercise regimen or ate their health food that you would look just like them are lying. In many ways, you can no more control these things than you can control whether you are male or female, straight or gay.

My grandmother on my mother’s side lived to be almost 99 years old, and my mother is currently doing fine in her 80s. There must be something there that has benefited me. Now if only I could have been tall and handsome…

So let’s look to the second factor: exercise. This is very important, and is something I just don’t do. I know, I know, these are supposed to be my advice columns, my life lessons. Just because I have these life lessons doesn’t mean I’m very good at following them. I really should exercise more. Like any.

The third factor, though, is something else: diet. What you put into your body can affect your body greatly. People who would never consider putting kerosene in their car have no problem downing greasy hamburgers washed down with a soda …

I’ve been a pescatarian since 1976, but I never heard the term pescatarian until a few years ago (that’s someone who eats fish but no other meat). The reason is two-fold: First, as a kind of boycott against factory farms and the cruel treatment of the animals there; but also for my health.

My wife and I try to never buy food in cans. We have salad about every other day, fish twice a week, and buy fresh fruit and vegetables for our meals.

The problem with eating well, though, is that it is expensive. Because of subsidies, the bad food is cheaper than the good food, which is one of the reasons there are so many overweight people in America today; the bad food is also fattening.

Taking care of what you put in your body also includes things like sodas, which have no nutritional value at all and are very bad for you, and of course all sorts of unwanted drugs.

You have to be an informed consumer for this to work well. Never trust any packaging; they all lie. There are so many things that advertise themselves as being healthy that are anything but, and you’ll be paying more for this packaging because what you get is still crap. Read the ingredients and compare and you may be shocked at how the package with the happy farmer is actually just as full of chemicals as the brand name product (and, if you look real close, you’ll discover that it’s probably made by the brand name company, too).

And “natural” doesn’t mean “good for you”. Arsenic is “natural.”

I’ve rambled a bit here, but I think the life lesson from this is “take care of your body; It’s the only one you have.”

Life Lessons #2: The secret of success

(This is a repost from my writing blog)

I recently read an article that spoke of the three elements needed for success in any field, and it struck me as a wonderful summation. You need all three of these in varying degrees if you want to get anywhere.

The three things are talent, hard work, and — here’s the one people don’t always realize — meeting the right people and impressing them.

Talent is obvious, right? But that alone will get you nowhere. People who are less talented than you have become successful, and people more talented than you are still waiting tables and wondering why no one has discovered them yet.Mike

Talent is a mixture of what you are born with and the skills you acquire. You need both. You may have a great ear for music but it won’t get you anywhere until you practice your instrument to the point where you can produce the music you hear in your head. Having great story ideas won’t get you far if you lack the basic writing skills to express them.

Which leads us to the next element: Hard work.

Almost every single person who has made themselves successful has been obsessive about their work. It’s practically all they do. They spend every day working on their craft and, of course, the more they do, the better they get.

Here’s the key: You have to love your work for this to happen. If you love it, it doesn’t seem like work.

This one has kind of been my downfall — I love a lot of things and over the years, I tried to do them all instead of concentrating on one.

When I was in college, for instance, my band meant the world to me. I loved playing, practicing, writing songs, and performing. And we got pretty good, too. We played all the big clubs in Richmond, Virginia and had a bit of a following. But we never made it. We were talented and we worked hard, but we lacked that final element.

We didn’t meet the right people and impress them. It didn’t even occur to us that we should be working on that. (Hey, we were young.)

Part of the problem was that we were in Richmond. You can only go so far in Richmond, which lacks major record labels, agents, and the connections we needed. No one was going to “discover” us there.

You have to go to the places where people who can make a difference to you live. If you want to be a successful actor, get yourself to New York or Los Angeles. Want a career in politics? Move to Washington. Computers? Perhaps Seattle.

Things are different these days than when I was in college. With the internet, it’s a lot easier to meet the right people and impress them. But even so, it is much better to be in a major city that can give you the personal touch needed to make the final sale.

In my writing career, I’ve learned how important this third point is. I’ve attended writer’s conferences, networked with other authors and agents, spoken at conventions, and have tried my best to keep myself in the loop. And it has helped me tremendously. I’ve learned things from these people I would not have discovered on my own, and my writing has improved. And the people I have met in person are much more likely to help me than those I have only talked to online.

More importantly, these people have introduced me to others who have helped my career. I’ve built relationships that will serve me when I try to sell my next novel. I’ve met the right people, and (hopefully) have impressed them.

Oh, I may not have impressed them with my writing skills (yet!) but I hopefully have given them the image of me as a professional with whom they can work; that I am someone who is reliable, meets deadlines, and completes tasks given.

You want the people you meet to know that you have something to offer them in exchange; that you can help their career, too.

These three elements need to be present if you want success. They do not have to be equal — if you meet the right people, for instance, you don’t need as much talent, which is the only way to explain Paris Hilton or the cast of the Jersey Shore. And if you are so talented that you cannot be ignored, the right people may come looking for you.

But don’t ignore any one of these elements, because if you do, you’re never going anywhere.

Life Lessons #1: Don’t have big regrets

Today is my 55th birthday. I’m now closer to 60 than to 50. That’s a scary thought, especially when I consider where I thought I’d be at this point in my life.

There are paths I chose in my life that, in retrospect, I wish I had not. But on this trip around the sun, I think I’ll spend the next few blog posts talking about what I’ve learned over the years, and my basic philosophy that I’ve tried to follow all these years.

When I was in High School, I thought I’d be a famous songwriter in a band when I was older. Or a politician. Or an actor. I had so many things I wanted to do. I was sure that by the time I was 55, I’d be rich and famous … but then, a lot of kids think that, don’t they?

So let’s start with this: Try not to have big regrets.

Act on your dreams. No one was ever on their death bed saying, “I’m so glad I never tried to accomplish that dream of mine!”

I’ve done a lot of different things in my life. I’ve been successful at some, and not so much at others.

When I was a kid, I decided I wanted to be an actor. So my mom took me to community theater, and I passed auditions and was in a number of plays. (I continued on through High School.)

Then I wanted to be a cartoonist. I ended up drawing comics for my school newspapers through law school.

I thought it would be great to be in a band, so I taught myself guitar, bass and piano. I played in many bands and still do from time to time.

In High School, I decided to start an “underground” newspaper. It became quite popular, although it was more like Mad Magazine than a real newspaper. (I continued to write for the college and law school papers and later did a column for the Allston-Brighton Item.)

Then I said, “I should write a musical comedy.” I did, and the High School drama coach liked it. The school put it on. It was held over an extra week and got good reviews from the local paper.

In College, I decided to run for the student government and received the highest number of votes of any candidate, and was later awarded the college’s Student Service Award in my senior year.

Then I decided to go to law school, mostly because I was interested in politics. I became involved with the Massachusetts chapter of Americans for Democratic Action and ended up as their President for a year. I also worked as a lobbyist, and was campaign manager for a state representative for a summer.

After law school, I said, “There should be a magazine for animated films,” and started Animato!, which later grew into a real magazine carried in book stores everywhere.

Then I joined up with some friends and began one of the first live-action fantasy medieval roleplaying games in America. I later broke away and started the Alliance LARP, which now has been running for more than 20 years. I have chapters all over the United States and Canada, and the Discovery channel recently did a documentary about us.

I recently decided I wanted to write fiction, and I have published two novels and six short stories (no, they’re not self-published) as well as edited two anthologies. I’m trying to get an agent for the third novel while working on the fourth.

Now, were all of these things successful? No. I tried to make a living at the LARP but ended up living in poverty for a few years. My books are not best-sellers. My bands may have played all the big clubs but we never got a record deal. I gave up on the cartooning and never pursued the acting.

I’ve had regrets about life, just like everyone. But they are rarely of the “I wish I had tried that” variety.

And that’s today’s lesson: Take control and make things happen in your life. There is no “Life Fairy” who will come along, point a magic wand, and make all your dreams come true. Sitting around and watching TV won’t get you anywhere. Get off your butt and do something. Make something of your life.

Make sure that when you’re on your death bed, you have no big regrets.