ornament 10 August 2005 ornament

Daisy Dukes in the Pews?

I’m all for not wearing a three-piece suit to church, but sometimes casualness can get out of hand—and I’m not talking about Hawaiian shirts here. Pop-star turned Dukes of Hazzard actress Jessica Simpson’s father had a different view regarding his daughters’ church apparel:

Joe Simpson, her manager/father/ex-minister who has held forth before on the issue of his daughter’s ample bosom, weighed in on her provocative outfits. “When we were in church work [my daughters] wore bikinis and short shorts,” he said. “People in the church got mad at me then but we believe that what’s in the heart is more important than what’s on the outside.”

Apparently this maxim holds true even when there’s nothing on the outside…

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The Christian Paradox?

Bill McKibben says that America gets Christianity wrong. In a recent Harper’s essay, “The Christian Paradox” (excerpted here), McKibben argues that though Americans profess Christianity, they do not live out their faith.

McKibben gets much of it right. For example, he observes the rise of biblical illiteracy among Americans:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

McKibben goes on to raise the question of whether or not America really is a Christian nation after all. The assumed answer is no, as “America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior.”

The assertions McKibben makes are certainly warranted. The United States as a whole is at best post-Christian, if it could ever truly be considered Christian in the first place—an issue I’ve discussed here before. However, the “paradox” McKibben describes is little more than civil religionism. If America doesn’t hold a common commitment to Christ, it certainly has a common ancestor in the notion that most of its forefathers celebrated Christmas rather than Ramadan.

If McKibben’s essay does anything, I hope it highlights the fact that there is an increasing deficit of knowledge in America as to what biblical Christianity teaches. In an ironic twist, McKibben himself illustrates this point in his idealizations of how a Christian nation should act. He laments the fact that, “having been told to turn the other cheek, we’re the only Western democracy left that executes its citizens, mostly in those states where Christianity is theoretically strongest” — a text (Matthew 5:38-39) having to do with personal vengeance, not state-issued capital punishment.

It’s clear from his ideals that McKibben is writing from a liberal perspective, but it should wake up all Americans to the fact that there are many of us who do not act the way we say that we believe, and vice versa.

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ornament 9 August 2005 ornament

Europe’s Lonley Heart

Speaking of Belarus, there’s a revealing article in TCS today about the political modus operandi there that is increasingly reminiscent of the U.S.S.R. The writer, Anna Volk (undoubtedly a pseudonym, since she’s writing such a bold piece from within Belarus), describes some of the current goings on:

[The Belarusian president], first of all, is trying to strengthen his personal control over everything that happens in this country. Belarus is the only ex-Soviet country in which the KGB still exists. Last July Belarus adopted a law which foresees the inculcation of the Special Forces collaborators into private enterprises under cover of ordinary employment. Moreover, the KGB is given the right to enter any premises by breaking locks, and the prosecutor’s sanction can be received within the next 24 hours.

There’s more. [The Belarusian president] is trying to isolate not only the country as a whole, but also a specific group: the nomenklatura, the state bureaucracy. A month ago he decreed that public officials in Belarus can go abroad only with the president’s consent and for no longer than two days. The Belarusian leader has instructed officials to cut their travel abroad to a minimum.

He is also telling students to stick to their textbooks and keep out of politics. All educational establishments in Belarus have been provided with instructions for how to prevent students from being involved in unlawful activity of a political nature. School and university teachers are strictly prohibited from talking about the political situation in the country with students. From now on, students engaged in opposition activities will be monitored even more closely. A number of active students have already been expelled from the universities.

None of this is surprising if you’ve even remotely kept up with happenings in Belarus in the past ten years. There will be an “election” this year in Belarus which looks sure to be an easy victory for the current regime. Then again, stranger things have happened…

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ornament 8 August 2005 ornament

Baseball Cards and Belarusian Rubles

I began collecting baseball cards in the summer of 1984, when I was a nine-year-old who knew little of the game. By the time I quit collecting in 1989, I could tell you not only what the letters RBI, SB, and BB on the back of the card meant—I could tell you the stats for most any player in my collection. My first pack was the result of a Fleer 3-pack which was divided among me and my brothers. I ended up with a Greg “The Bull” Luzinski card which I placed at the front of my ever-increasing stack of cards that were wrapped with a rubber band—hardly a way to keep a collectible in mint condition.

1984 Fleer Don Mattingly rookie card

I did find one gem among the cards I collected that summer: a Don Mattingly rookie. It’s amazing that this card was so well preserved when Mattingly came to prominence a few years later. For a kid, finding the Mattingly rookie among the commons in your collection was like finding a Picasso in your attic. In the late 1980s, the Mattingly rookie was the hottest card around. The Donruss brand card was worth a bit more, but the Fleer was still a rare find which at its peak was worth anywhere from $75 to $80 in mint condition.

A cursory web search reveals today’s value for the Mattingly rookie at around $30. What happened? Was Mattingly’s short-lived career to blame? He still has been mentioned on Hall of Fame ballots, and despite his back problems in the latter part of his career he is still considered one of the better hitters of all time.

It turns out that the decline in the card’s value has little to do with Mattingly himself. A recent article on the baseball card industry tells the story all too well:

Summertime is when baseball’s pennant races heat up. Too bad the same can’t be said for interest in baseball cards. Fleer, the New Jersey company responsible for breaking the long-running Topps baseball-card monopoly in 1981, went out of business in May, citing sluggish sales and debts approaching $40 million. It was sold at auction last month to rival Upper Deck for $6.1 million. In addition, the Major League Baseball Players Association decided not to renew next season’s card license for cardmaker Donruss – a major blow.

“This is huge news because in the last six weeks we’ve reached a real turning point in the card industry,” says Rocky Landsverk, editor of Tuff Stuff, a monthly collectibles magazine. “For the past 10 years, we had too many cards out there. This should help clean some of that up.”

I’d say it’s more like the past 15 years. I quit collecting in 1989 mainly because it was becoming too expensive a hobby for a teenager to keep up with. I had accumulated around 7,000 cards which at the time was worth around $500-$600. Nowadays it would be difficult to get $200 for the whole lot, if even that much. In the late 80s, the baseball card market became saturated, with new companies popping up left and right, building on the established “big three” companies of Topps, Fleer, and Donruss—of which the latter two were still in infancy themselves. The result of the market saturation (added to Major League Baseball’s own problems) is the baseball card industry’s current decline.

Belarusian Ruble

This downturn calls to mind the sordid history of the Belarusian Ruble (BR). When I lived in the former Soviet republic of Belarus from 1998-99, I saw the exchange rate go from 75,000 BR per USD to around 1.2 million BR per USD in just over a year. Throughout the entire increase, the government kept printing more and more money while artificially maintaining its value. The result was a real-world value that plummeted, leaving Belarusians who had large quantities of rubles left with currency that was cheaper than toilet paper in some instances.

While not exactly the same, the situation is similar with the baseball card industry. The once lucrative market became so saturated with different types of cards that the novelty and uniqueness of individual cards wore off. Any collectors who thought baseball cards were a sound investment were left holding many cards that were no more valuable than a noisemaker for the spokes of their bicycle wheels.

Thankfully, my collection was always oriented more toward fun and the love of the game than investing. I’ll most likely let my collection continue to age, unless there’s anyone out there interested in a Jose Canseco rookie (once worth $100, now worth $18) who is willing to pay yesteryear’s price. Any takers?

I didn’t think so.

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ornament 5 August 2005 ornament


The preseason USA Today Poll is out, and Tennessee is number three. That makes for an uncomfortable season with all the pressure, but the climb will not have to be that far. It’s less than a month until September 3, when the Vols take on UAB, who hate us only a third as much as UAT.

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ornament 4 August 2005 ornament

DVD Roundup

I haven’t done a DVD roundup in a while, so here are a few quick reviews of films I’ve seen in the last few months:

On a night when you’re feeling really comfortable, successful, and like you’ve got everything together, put Hotel Rwanda into your DVD player. Two hours and two minutes later, you’ll emerge in a shell-shocked realization that the rest of the world doesn’t operate as easily as the one just outside your living room. This is a difficult film to watch, even as it spares us the most gruesome violence. Does this type of thing still happen in our “highly evolved” society? You bet it does. 8 out of 10

Hostage was at best mediocre. The film, which features Bruce Willis trying to save an seemingly endless number of hostages, is like an introspective version of Willis’ earlier success, Die Hard. The Die Hard genre of cinema and introspection go together about as well as mayonnaise on pizza, and Hostage only proves the rule. The whole “kidnappers-are-people-too” idea grows wearisome, and while a sullen Willis worked for The Sixth Sense, it seems awkward in Hostage. 4 out of 10

Secondhand Lions: It’s been out for a while, but I’ll admit that I was surprised that I liked this film so much. Haley Joel Osmet pulls off a perfect sissy-boy who learns to grow up a bit when he spends a summer with his eccentric uncles played by Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. Duvall hilariously evokes the kind of “man’s man” that you rarely see anymore. 7 out of 10

Finding Neverland: First, bore me to tears, and then proceed to tell me that a man destroying his marriage in pursuit of another woman is a good thing in the long run. Peter Pan never did grow up, and neither did this movie’s plot. 4 out of 10

The Life Aquatic: This is the second time I’ve tried really hard to like a Wes Anderson film. This is the second time I’ve failed miserably. Something about Anderson’s humor either goes over my head or is just not funny to me. 3 out of 10

In Good Company: I liked this movie because it shows us that the new and idealistic isn’t always the best approach. It’s the most un-Hollywoodish portrayal of family life I’ve seen in a long time, and Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace both give outstanding performances. It’s one of the best movies for character development of the year. 7 out of 10

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ornament 2 August 2005 ornament

Travelogue: Indianapolis, IN

Union Station

Over the weekend my wife and I had a brief stay in Indianapolis, Indiana. While we didn’t see any formula one races, or score any Colts tickets, we did get to spend some much needed child-free time together, courtesy my in-laws. Here are my notes from the trip:

  • It doesn’t take long after crossing the Ohio that you officially enter the Midwest. There’s a marked difference in land usage and even terrain from Kentucky — there’s no mistaking that you’re in the breadbasket of the world. “Land spreadin’ out so far and wide. . .” Well, you get the picture.
  • We made a stop in the pleasant town of Greenwood, IN so my wife could browse a famous quilting shop there. After my obligatory five minutes in a shop with way-too-much estrogen, I recused myself to the front porch of the store so I could read a book. One rather perceptive woman, upon entering the store said: “Here’s a husband who is used to stopping at all the quilt shops with his wife — he knows just what to do!” Indeed.
  • Downtown Indianapolis seems almost oasis-like, surrounded by nowhere. I’m sure there are ample suburbs (I’ve seen a few on previous trips), but the contrast between the agrarian and the urban is striking.
  • Like many cities, Indianapolis has put a lot of money in to renovating its downtown area. Restaurants, cafes, sports venues, and interconnected shopping malls pepper the urban landscape of downtown and give the sense, at least that something is going on.
  • Also, like many cities, Indianapolis’ many renovations do little to mask its thriving homeless population.
  • To avoid the hotel’s pricey — and most likely tasteless — breakfast, we ventured over to Steak n Shake for our morning meal. I know that these restaurants are everywhere, but their coffee was quite remarkable. For a coffee novice like me, it was pure joy.

That’s all for this Travelogue. Where will we be next time? I wonder. . .

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ornament 1 August 2005 ornament


When Wade Boggs came to the plate for the Red Sox, he rarely swung at the first pitch. It was almost too easy for pitchers to get ahead in the count on the Boston third baseman. It wasn’t as easy, however, to get Boggs out—he finished his career with a .328 lifetime batting average.

Restraint was a hallmark of both Boggs and his fellow 2005 Hall of Fame inductee, Cubs second-baseman Ryne Sandberg. They were class acts who worked hard, eschewed showboating, and quietly made their marks on the game. Their status as hall-of-famers is well deserved.

What do these baseball purists have to say about the state of the game today? Not much. Sandberg said yesterday:

“A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn’t work hard for validation. I didn’t play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that’s what you’re supposed to do — play it right and with respect.

“If this validates anything, it’s that learning how to bunt, how to hit-and-run and turn two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera.”

…You see players self-promoting. They hit a home run, their team is still down four or five runs, and here they are tipping their hat to the camera because they hit a home run. It drives me nuts. … I’d like to see more of team concept. We, not I.”

Sandberg added more thoughts about respect:

“I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates, your organization, your manager and never your uniform. Make a great play, act like you’ve done it before. Get a big hit, look for the third-base coach and be ready to run the bases. Hit a home run, put your head down, drop the bat, run around the bases because the name on the front is a lot more important than the name on the back.”

Likewise, Boggs thought little of the sportsmanship of today’s athletes:

“When I retired in 1999, I grounded out to second and gave it everything I had running down to first base in my last at-bat. I always felt if I disrespected the game by not hustling and giving everything I had, it’s circumstances of cheating the fans — you’re cheating the fans, you’re cheating your teammates and disrespecting the name that’s on the front of your jersey.”

USA Today columnist Hal Bodley wonders:

. . . if Manny Ramirez or any of the other enormously talented players who masquerade as major leaguers were listening? Just the other day, Ramirez refused to play, even though he was needed because one of his Boston Red Sox teammates was injured. Or all the times he refuses to run hard to first base on an obvious ground-ball out. Or when he drops his bat and celebrates a home run.

I wonder too. Baseball has always had its share of showboating (think Babe Ruth calling his shots), but there was also an element of respect to keep it in its proper place (think Lou Gehrig). If only that element would emerge in baseball again today. . .

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