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November 3, 2009 - October 27, 2009

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Culture Shock

We were the 'Blue Devils.' Now they're the 'Blue Storm.' Ugh.

TREADING IN INSTAPUNK'S SHOES. So the past has been much on my mind lately, for a lot of reasons. And I'm going to apologize immediately, because there will be reminiscences here. Long reminiscences. I've just found out that my middling old boarding school, which I thought was tottering along in its customary historical anonymity, has become (possibly) one of the 10 richest prep schools in terms of endowment-per-student in the country.

No, you've never heard of it. That was always the point of the place, the secret of its successes.

This is all more revealing than I'd like, more specific by far, but there is a prep school called Mercersburg Academy which has produced a fair number of graduates you definitely know of, including Timothy Leary and Jiimmy Stewart but not including me. I'm not mentioning it to brag but to confess my befuddlement. There's a video at this site which purports to describe the experience of a Mercersburg education, and I can recognize a lot of the campus -- but everything else in the video is so alien from my memories as to be about an entirely different place. I've explored every way possible to summon the video to this page, but I can't do it. You'll have to go here and scroll, then left click to start it and right click to blow it up to 200 percent, and I hope you do it, because between that video and me there is a chasm that I fear can no longer be bridged. The campus and the countryside are still beautiful, but the core of the place has changed. Here's an endorsement from a recent grad now enrolled at Princeton. And here's an ugly counterpoint to show you the low end. Since I was there, the tuition has risen by 2,000 percent, and that's less than the apparent rise in the self-esteem of the student body.

Confession time. InstaPunk and I were there at the same time, and I wasn't always fond of him. He was older, and we gravitated toward different people. We were, well, different from one another. Which was a common enough thing at Mercersburg. People in different dorms lived completely different lives, organized around completely different values. It wasn't until I got to my dream elite college that I finally realized how unique my school had been. For good and for ill. The famous schools seemed to produce an actual identifiable product. With practice you could name the school based on the personality and the behavior, some locus of points on a four-variable graph charting intelligence, arrogance, good manners, and lowdown adolescent swinishness. Exeter boys pinned the needle in the intelligence and arrogance corner of the graph. Andover ruled the arrogance-swinishness sector, and the Grottlesex contingent -- Choate, Groton, St. Mark's, St. George's, St. Paul's, Middlesex, etc -- had scarily good manners combined with the permanent distance of those who are simply better than you are. Except for the St. Paul's boys, who were the purest pricks on earth.

I know most of you think this is all nonsense, that who these people are has nothing to do with all the real people in the United States, but there is a certain relevance. Consider this list:

* Albert Gore, Jr,. St. Alban's School, Washington, DC
* Ali McGraw, Choate-Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, CT
* Archibald MacLeish, The Hotchkiss School, Lakeville, CT
* Benicio Del Toro, Mercersburg Academy, Mercersburg, PA
* Brit Hume, St. Alban's School, Washington, DC
* Chelsea Clinton, Sidwell Friends School, Washington, DC
* Cole Porter, Worcester Academy, Worcester, MA
* Edward Kennedy, Milton Academy, Milton, MA
* Eliot Spitzer, Horace Mann School, New York, NY
* Glenn Close, Choate-Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, CT
* George Herbert Walker Bush, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA
* George Walker Bush, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA
* Gore Vidal, Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH
* Gwyneth Paltrow, The Spence School, New York, New York
* Humphrey Bogart, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA
* Ivanka Trump, Choate-Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, CT
* Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, Miss Porter's School, Farmington, CT
* James Stewart, Mercersburg Academy, Mercersburg, PA
* Jamie Lee Curtis, Choate-Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, CT
* Jane Fonda, Emma Willard School, Troy, NY
* Jodie Foster, Choate-Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, CT
* John Dos Passos, Choate-Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, CT
* John O'Hurley, Kingswood-Oxford School, West Hartford, CT
* John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Choate-Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, CT
* John Irving, Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH
* John Kerry, St. Paul's School, Concord, NH
* Julia Louise-Dreyfus, Holton-Arms School, Bethesda, MD
* Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, The Putney School, Putney, VT
* Laura Linney, Northfield Mt. Hermon School, Northfield, MA
* Mario Van Peebles, St. Thomas More School, Oakdale, CT
* Michael Douglas, Choate-Rosemary Hall, Wallingford, CT
* Natalie Cole, Northfield Mt. Hermon School, Northfield, MA
* Oliver Stone, The Hill School, Pottstown, PA
* Queen Noor, Concord Academy, Concord, MA
* Stephen Crane, The Pennington School, Pennington, NJ
* Steve Forbes, The Brooks School, North Andover, MA
* Stewart Mott, Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, MA
* Stockard Channing, The Madeira School, Mclean, VA
* Strobe Talbott, St. Alban's School, Washington, DC
* Ted Danson, Kent School, Kent, CT
* Tucker Carlson, St. George's School, Newport, RI
* Uma Thurman, Northfield Mt. Hermon School, Northfield, MA

The list is only a partial. The reality is that it's much much longer. So, yes, they're in and amongst us, they at least influence things that are important in our lives, and they might represent -- what's the au courant term? -- a brand. Or more than one. Do you have any idea who they are, or were, or how their experience relates to your own? Do you think you know them? I'm still not sure I do and I was actually one of them, though not as a real insider. I was, as you'll come to see, a minor leaguer who got to see the Big Show up close for a while.

The thing was, as you watched them, you could see that each school really was producing a type of persona, to such a degree that you could begin to guess correctly about where people had gone to prep school. There were distinctive characteristics about the ones who had been to Deerfield, Hotchkiss, Milton, Taft, Brooks, Mount Hermon, St. Alban's, Hill, Lawrenceville, and on and on. There are always exceptions, of course, but I began to realize that Mercersburg's product consisted solely of exceptions. There was no such thing as a Mercersburg boy in the way that there was definitely such a thing as a Choatie, a Grotty, and so on.

For a few semesters this made me feel superior. We Mercersburg boys were at least individuals. Maybe not as smart as the blue-ribbon crowd but we weren't a cookie-cutter stereotype. And then my former schoolmates began to die. Ten of them before I had been out of school three years. Drugs, Suicide. Murder. Vietnam. Car accidents. And the 'types' the various schools turned out started to look pretty good. I began to see that it was a protective carapace which kept them alive while they were still figuring out who they were, so that they couldn't be done in by sheer accident. I decided that if I ever had a son, I would send him to Groton, where they really do teach young men how to behave like gentlemen, at least with other guys, always polite, attentive, and gracious, regardless of what may be simmering under the surface.

Years passed. Close friends died. People I didn't much care for died. People I thought were certain to be happy fell into disastrous marriages. People I knew were destined for messy and disgraceful ends became conventional husbands, fathers, and financial successes. All the permutations of human life kicked in. I realized, at very long last, that there is no guaranteed formula for producing good men, successful lives, or happiness.

It all comes down to specifics. And maybe in this respect, old-time Mercersburg boys do have a lasting advantage. None of us claims the stamp of our school as some kind of badge, a logo we'd put on a business card. We didn't think of ourselves as the latest version of some grand tradition. We weren't in awe of Mercersburg; we were just enrolled there. We were the Cleveland Indians of prep schools, perpetual doormats for the Yankees of our kind. Mercersburg regarded the Hill School as its great rival in football, while Hill cared only about Lawrenceville. We regarded Lawrenceville as our great rival in swimming, but in ten years we beat them only once. We were the poor relation of elite mid-atlantic prep schools. Of all the American writers who ever wrote tedious books about going to prep school, only one ever gave us a mention, dismissively, in a John O'Hara story that referenced a song called "I'm Only a Mercersburg Boy."

No disrespect to O'Hara. The song had it right. We didn't feel rich, privileged, elite, or superior. Typically, our class presidents were dumb jocks who had been kicked out of more famous prep schools for various sins against good taste, sobriety, and female modesty. We weren't really trying to live up to anything -- we were in a constant state of low-grade rebellion that occasionally got the whole school smacked down. (Some commenter could ask me about Penny Sunday, which was hilarious but not germane to this post.) My freshman year, a field trip by the French Club turned into a scandal when every senior on the trip sneaked out of a Moliere play in DC to go drinking in Georgetown. Four of them were expelled.

Ah yes. The only tragedy ever recognized at Mercersburg was the expulsion of a "four year boy," of which there were never more than about twenty-five in a graduating class. Rare birds, the four year boys. Who could put up with it all, the whole four-year sentence? Many didn't. Four-year boys had a way of getting expelled in their final semester. We always mourned their loss.

Did you watch the video? Good. It's vital information. Now put it out of your mind. Mercersburg was for most of its history an all-boys school. Which made it, under the surface, a pretty barbaric place. Freshmen lived in terror. From the first day of the school year, all new boys had to wear black ties -- oh yes, coats and ties were continuously required for classes and meals, white shirts for dinner and on Sundays -- which every upperclassman was entitled to cut off at the knot with jackknife or scissors. Those who objected were promised vengeance on "Field Day," six weeks into the first semester. Some new boys were singled out for literal hell, usually by sophomores ('lower middlers') who had been bullied themselves the year before, and they underwent humiliations that made even teenage boys cringe with something like shame at not doing more to stop it.

Field Day was a school-sponsored ritual hazing of the sort that would in our times incite a congressional investigation. New boys, mostly fourteen and fifteen years old, were rousted out of bed at five am -- rising bell was usually 6:45 am -- and chivvied in their black ties (and sweats) to a distant sports field drainage ditch filled with ice cold water, into which they were required to dive and crawl hundreds of yards through mud while being pelted with eggs, coffee grounds, and whatever other goodies upperclassmen desired to rain upon them. When they emerged, half an hour later, they were no longer new boys. The ceremony concluded with the burning of black ties. Then, in the afternoon, it was Parents' Day. No one seemed conscious of any particular irony.

If this sounds faintly military, that's how the rest of the four years seemed too. There was almost never any time to call your own, from the rising bell to required breakfast to class to lunch to class to varsity or required intramural sports to dinner to study hall in the dorm to lights out. There were no computers then. Stereos and radios were not allowed during study hall and certainly not after lights out. No smoking ever, no phones (one pay booth in the basement of each dorm), no music or visiting between rooms during study hall, and no way to cheat because there were no earphones and no cellphones. The only television on campus was in the student union, where there were also two ping-pong tables and three pool tables. The only way to get playing time on any of these was to be (or get) good enough to win. Anyone could get in line to challenge "winners" at pool or ping pong, but winners tended to keep winning, and losers had to get back in line for another 15-minute chance two hours later. Somehow, though, losers who were persistent enough eventually got good themselves. (I can still beat a lot of redneck pool sharks even at my advanced age.)

Everything at Mercersburg -- and I'm sure at other prep schools -- was a competition. Every marking period, the school newspaper published the names and general averages of those who had earned honors (80 to 89 GAs) and, separately, high honors (90 to 99 GAs). High honors students also had their names and GAs posted prominently in the lobby of the student union. Positive reinforcement? Sure. Until some high honors regular had a bad marking period and all and sundry started asking him what happened to make him fall below expectations.

Everyone had to do time as a waiter in the dining hall on a regular basis. Seating was assigned in three week increments, ten boys to a table, plus a senior 'proctor' and an assigned master who always had the privilege of bringing his whole family to dinner and "bumping" underclassmen to other tables. (I'm not naming names here, but this was a privilege frequently abused.) Each of these tables was served by two waiters, a blue coat and a white coat, who served two days in each position, in rotation with every other boy assigned to the table except the proctor. The white coat wore the starched garment -- stiffer than sheetrock -- that gave him his title and had to wait in line in the kitchen to get his tray loaded with enough food for eleven teenage boys. There were no dispensations for five-foot, 100-lb freshmen ('Juniors'). They could stagger under the weight all the way to their tables or die trying. They also had to carry all the dirty plates back to the kitchen before they could return with dessert. This was usually the time when they underwent the school-wide humiliation of a 'wipeout.' The tray fell, the dishes broke like bombs going off in the echo chamber of the dining hall, and everyone applauded, whistled, and stamped their feet while the offending white coat blushed crimson in shame.

Every table also had a blue coat, who helped the white coat serve, clear, and run to the kitchen for seconds and thirds. Lunch and dinner were no big deal for him; his opportunity for glory was breakfast. Breakfast began at 7:10 exactly. If a student was still in the lobby outside the dining room when the 7:10 bell went off, the troll in charge of the dining hall was there to take names and charge the tardy with a breakfast cut (four per term, plus two lunches and two dinners if these were signed up for in advance). Exceed your permitted cuts and you would be seeing Mr. Howard after the meal (more about that later). Anyway, the blue coat's breakfast responsibility was to set his table -- place by place -- with plates, cereal bowls, clean water glasses, cups and saucers, filled juice glasses, and silverware. AND pitchers of ice water and coffee. If this task was not complete when the 7:10 bell rang, he would be seeing Mr. Howard after the meal. At least once every week, some blue coat slept through the rising bell and came roaring into the dining hall, still tying his tie on the run as the five-minute bell went off. While everybody watched and nobody helped, it was his challenge to set a table for twelve in four minutes and 55 seconds. While the dining hall troll or one of his deputies stood by with his pad and pencil. And, yes, it is possible to run with a tray of full little juice glasses, to deal heavy dinner plates like cards across the tablecloth, and sometimes a blue coat is victorious against the troll. Which earns a local round of applause.

Winning, losing, competing in everything, large and small, every day, all month, all term, and all year long. No one is immune from occasional disaster, and no one is denied the opportunity for an occasional win. How low can you wear your tie, how taped-up can you wear your worn-out weejuns, how long can you go without being ordered to get a haircut, how many times can you glide into class on the bell? Points are being scored and deducted from your personal total every minute of every day.

We knew we weren't a military school because we played some military schools in sports, and we knew they had it much worse than we did -- we wore jackets and ties of our own choosing, had tablecloths, edible (often excellent) food, and a few sensational teachers' wives to ogle and dream about. The military school boys had diner napkin dispensers on linoleum tables, uniforms, greasy glop for food, and therefore sickeningly bad complexions. We couldn't even fool ourselves that we were being seriously mistreated. But we also had something important in common with them. Guard.

When they got around other preppies, Mercersburg boys were always explicitly curious about punishment. They rarely got satisfactory answers. Punishment in the elite New England schools always seemed to consist of a clever "don't do it again" kind of conversation. And maybe some one or two day confinement to campus. At Mercersburg, punishment was punishment.

As I've already explained, we all ate together in a huge and brightly lit dining room. Which was generally okay. But if you had done something against the rules -- missed a class, been seen dropping a water balloon on a fellow student's head, said something sarcastic or disrespectful to a master, gotten caught smoking (oh.my.god), the head waiter (a scholarship boy of incredible power and influence) would come up behind you and tap your shoulder. You wouldn't even turn around because you knew what he was going to say into your ear: "Mr. Howard will see you after the meal."

Mr. Howard was the Dean of Boys. The one responsible for all punishment, all justice, all mercy, all official humiliations. He was capricious, subject to dark moods, and perhaps worst of all, mordantly witty. He could carve you into mincemeat with mere questions. He was also from Maine. He had a Maine accent so thick that the Maine accents you hear in the movies always seem like bad impersonations of Mr. Howard, no matter how old you get. His lower jaw stuck out like the cowcatcher of a locomotive. He was no taller than Napoleon and no more forgiving. He sat at the head of the head table of the 500-seat dining room, which was the throne from which he meted out his punishments. You went there after the dismissal bell to get in line with the other malefactors and wait your turn. He was terrifying. If he was in a particularly bad mood at breakfast, you got scrambled egg on your tie from his tirade. He always smelled of tobacco and sometimes of scotch. Everybody hated and feared him. Almost everybody, that is.

After the waiter passed, you sat there not eating while you, and anyone who had overheard the summons, ruminated about what you had done and how bad the punishment might be. The truth is, Mr. Howard was mostly fair and mean only when you tried to deny obvious guilt or when he was in a really bad mood. I've watched a lot of judicial sentencing in my years since, but none has ever had the total, dismissive, bored authority of Mr. Howard delivering his verdict, usually after a few witticisms at your expense. "That'll be ten hours, Mr. Flanagan. See you Saturday." (Everyone in the school could do an impression of Mr. Howard: the line they practiced the most was, "See you Sattiddy.")

Ten hours of what? Guard. Something today's pampered, casually dressed, 40-grand tuition a year students at Mercersburg almost certainly know nothing about. Remember: no phones, no Ipods, no computers, not TVs, no music or radio during the only hours when we were actually alone in our rooms. Hours of Guard meant we couldn't go downtown until the hours had been served. We're talking downtown Mercersburg here. A crossroad in small-town Pennsylvania and almost nothing but. Except that it was home to Jack's Drugstore, which had pinball machines, great burgers, and what is still the best hot ham hoagie I've ever eaten -- as well as the movie theater where I saw my first ever exposed female breast on film (Sarah Miles). Guard takes all that away from you. You can't go to Jack's or the theater when you have time left to serve.

Instead, you have to report on Saturday afternoon for study hall at one of the "beautiful" classroom buildings. You bring your books and you dig into them in supervised silence for two hours, while all your friends are going downtown or attending sporting events on campus. At the end of the two hours, you proceed to the parking lot, where Mr. Howard is waiting. Four chairs demark the edges of the lot. He instructs you to get in line and begin walking around the chairs, around the lot. No talking. No looking from side to side. Just walking. That's Guard; If you're lucky, you have five hours, for which Mr. Howard gives a kindly exchange rate of 15 minutes per hour after your 1:1 contribution in study hall. After 45 minutes have passed, he pulls you out of line and lets you go. You thank him. It occurs to you that he's still doing Guard himself.

If you have ten hours, well, what can I say? That's two solid hours of walking before Mr. Howard lets you go. Four hours of your most precious day of the week wasted. (Ten hours? That would be a fistfight with somebody who deserved it, during study hall. And many equivalents.)

I'm not thinking the kids in the video are getting Guard for their malefactions. What do you think? I know for a fact that Mr. Howard is dead. Care to guess gow many hours of Guard were automatic for a first smoking offense? 50. A first drinking offense? 100.

One hundred hours of Guard made you Mr. Howard's indentured servant. He could let you work off ten hours a week as we've just described. In other words he could keep you confined to campus for three and a half months with no appeal. If you had a big chunk of hours, he would let you work some of it off, raking leaves with the grounds crew (half hour of raking = 1 hour of Guard). After classes ended for vacation breaks, parents had to wait in their cars and watch while their sons walked off their remaining hours; you couldn't leave campus with Guard, even for Thanksgiving or Christmas. No parents complained. The rules were the rules. And everyone got Guard at one point or another. It wasn't an unusual occurrence. You've heard of Skull & Bones? Well, Mercersburg had its Century Club. All you had to do to belong was get tagged for 100 hours of Guard in a school year. My roommate made the Century Club in his second year, not in a single jump but in an accumulation of careless offenses that made Mr. Howard deliver an ultimatum: "If I see you at my table again this term, Mister, you're out of here."

And it just so happened that we lived in the dean's own dormitory. Where he prowled the corridors at unexpected hours looking for trouble. My friend had most of the term to go... The result? As with so many of the most incorrigible Mercersburg boys, Mr. Howard turned his eye j-u-u-u-st enough to the side that he missed the opportunity to expel my roommate, and the two of them became buddies in the process, the same way Mr. Howard became buddies with the only Mercersburg alum I've ever heard of who was a member of the Century Club for all four years. I have to admit I have stood in that line waiting for judgment with Tim Flanagan ahead of me trying to talk his way out of the inevitable postponement of a trip to a town he had rarely visited, and the byplay between them was much better than an Abbott and Costello routine. Tim was lying and smiling, Mr. Howard was pretending to believe the lies and grinning with his eyes even as he reluctantly concluded the conversation with "See you Sattiddy, Mr. Flanagan." This was the Sixties, after all, and Tim Flanagan, way ahead of his time as always, looked and sounded like Shaun White skateboarding his spectacular way to, well, Guard.

But Mr. Howard was only the tip of the iceberg. There was also the Latin teacher, Papa Szekeley, who taught first and second year Latin by means of pure terror. Quizzes every single day, rearrangement of seating based on yesterday's quiz results, a malicious bolt of chalk in his hand to strike down bad blackboard translations, and a week-to-week fear regimen based on what was then a rotating schedule of classes: what was first period Monday was second period Tuesday, etc, until the class didn't meet for a day before it met first period again -- with the stipulation that unannounced hour exams could only be given during first period. I still have nightmares about Papa Szek coming down the hall jingling his keys before first period, not knowing if today is the day he's going to annihilate us with another 30-year-old Latin college board exam... (oh so much harder than the actual AP exam; thanks, Papa.)

Then there was Mr. Harris, a silver-haired old Brit whose second year chemistry students never got less than 800 on the AP Chemistry exam. He terrified the upperclassmen in the laboratory and the rest of us in chapel, because he knew his Bible even better than he knew the Periodic Table.

And Mr. Miller, who taught French and anything else he felt like teaching us, and gave out his grades for "literary translations" more in tones of voice than words. "Top Drawer" was a 10. "Only Fair" was a personal disgrace. He'd been in the Navy, had radar patents, and knew absolutely everything about art and literature. And everything else too. No joke.

And Mr. Suerken, who taught English and Music with so much naked emotion that he could tear up over a poem or a piece of music -- and then tear you up in the essays he assigned you to write. He really wanted you to understand what you were writing about, and convey that understanding eloquently and correctly. If you didn't do that, you got a bad grade and enthusiastic advice about how to do better next time.

And our headmaster Mr. Fowle, (he preferred Mr. to Dr.) who was in retrospect much like Ronald Reagan, a dignified old Williams College jock (14 varsity letters somehow; the rumor was he ran cross country between halves of football games) who when he taught history rewarded good performance from a coffee can filled with musket balls he had prised from the earth of Gettysburg. In our day he no longer taught classes, but if you had done something he disapproved of he would call you into his office to talk about it, and his disappointment was far worse than Guard. You had let him down. He also had the power, exercised once a term, to declare a 'Free Day.' It was always a reward for something we had done well, sports victories or unusually good grades, and we always sensed when it might be coming. That's when everyone went to breakfast, because the only time Mr. Fowle ever came to breakfast was to give us a Free Day. The table closest to the window where Mr. Fowle would appear if he were coming to the dining hall was vigilant, and everyone else was watching them. Suddenly they would erupt into a cheer, and then the whole school would cheer and stamp their feet in greeting to our beloved headmaster. He would join Mr. Howard at the head table and then rise to take the microphone and declare the wonderful news. A Free Day meant no classes, license to go downtown, play at the gym, do whatever we wanted, with a movie scheduled in the auditorium after dinner. A single day off the leash. How we cheered.

Sadly, I was there the day that it all changed, when the transformation to the touchy-feely new 'don't hurt their self-esteem' regime began. 1969. Ring a bell, history-wise? Our big moment came to be called the Chapel Protest. What were the protesters protesting? Everything. It was 1969 after all, and college kids throughout the land were going out on strike, rioting, doing drugs, and breaking every rule they could find. We had a handful of four-year boys who thought it made sense to risk expulsion over their resentment at having to go to chapel at 8:45 on a Saturday morning. So they decided to walk out and they took half the student body with them. This unprecedented, unheard of act of civil disobedience resulted in an immediate whole-school meeting, faculty and students both, at the auditorium. Students were allowed to stand up and complain about anything and everything, to their hearts' content, while our baffled and sorrowing headmaster played master of ceremonies on stage. I think that was the day he suddenly grew old.

As a result, I put out the first (and probably only ever) Extra Edition of the Mercersburg News, which had won honors for many years as the best prep school newspaper in the nation. (Anyone remember Bryan Barker, the ancient Aussie carillonneur extraordinaire who made that feat possible...? Sorry. Another non-germane anecdote.) All this was so long ago that the Extra was printed with linotype (in less than 48 hours, by gar). Points to any of the contemporary technologists who even know what linotype is. The lede I got right: Mercersburg would never be the same again. The first time we pushed back at the grownups, they folded like a cheap suit. Afterwards, we got ourselves a new, more powerful school government, fewer rules, voluntary chapel attendance, a whole bunch of additional meal and (gasp) class cuts, in fact, whatever we had enough nerve to ask for. By the time I graduated a year later, three of the seven dorms were known as drug dens, and getting caught smoking dope (if any master could fight his way past the bedspread that hung at the entrance of every dorm room doorway) was the only infraction left that could get you expelled. Everything else was negotiable. The happy, coddled kids you see in today's Mercersburg video don't even know that it's us they have to thank for their casual attire and friendly, relaxed atmosphere. It kind of feels as if every day for them is now a Free Day. Funny how things go, isn't it?

Anyway. I'm remembering an all-male trial by ordeal that doesn't resemble this rich little imitation womb at all. Our lives at Mercersburg weren't just challenging, they were severe. We certainly didn't go there to "get laid," and I was a lot happier with the team name 'Blue Devils' than 'Blue Storm.' Which particular devils, do you suppose, complained about our political incorrectness in that regard? If devils get mad, why wouldn't storms?

I have to concede this: they're not getting my money

But they will get my memories. Perhaps my fondest memories. Three friends who, sadly, did not last a lifetime but nevertheless infused a fourth-year spring with a burst of good will. Four teachers who still represent to me the pinnacle of pedagogy -- Suerken, Miller, Winebrenner, and 'Tank' Rankin. And one moment, perhaps the height of my life, at candlelight Christmas service in the Mercersburg Chapel, when I was young and immortal and indefatigable, and I smelled the sweet spruce trees between the granite columns, saw their shadows flickering in tune with the candle flames, and heard the choir singing under the organ and the bells of the carillon, all my senses braided together in a momentary experience of God. The definition of a divine moment is never after the fact. It's knowing what it is while it's happening. I knew it then, when it happened. I hope these kids have a chance to experience such a thing at Mercersburg. I don't believe they will. I think they're too much smarter than we were to experience wonder.



In sum, I can't and won't pretend to speak for the legions who attended Choate-Rosemary Hall and all the other most illustrious schools which are more responsible for the character of people like Gore, Kerry, and Bush than the Ivy colleges they attended. I don't really know what their experience was then or what the experience of their successors in those institutions is now. Hell, I don't even understand what happened to my own once anonymous school. I think it's worth looking into. But what do I know?

I'm only a Mercersburg boy.

P.S. In honor of our illustrious commenters, Brizoni has designed a new InstaPunk graphic, which you can see at the About InstaPunk posting in the lefthand column of the website. The text has also been revised to give you a better idea of who we are  -- more info, I guarantee than you'll find at any other blogsite -- and just how much freedom you have as commenters. Which is also, I gurarantee, much more than at other websites.




Wednesday, August 13, 2008


bama Wants You...

...to WORK for him.

ANOTHER WARNING. This news report is just plain funny:

DENVER -- The Obama campaign has begun notifying people who got tickets for the big acceptance speech at Invesco Field the final night of the convention.

Many of those who received tickets told 7NEWS they have come with a caveat.

Those viewers said the campaign told them they must volunteer six hours for the campaign by Friday in order to get a ticket.

"I got a call that if I want the tickets I have to volunteer two shifts of three hours apiece -- for one ticket. If I want two tickets, then it's four shifts of two hours apiece," said Berenice Christensen.

Another 7NEWS viewer sent an e-mail that said, "I received a call Monday saying I could 'qualify' for the tickets if I do 12 hours of volunteer work for the Obama campaign between now and Friday the 15th."

The viewer e-mail goes on, "To work 40 hours at my job, get to and from work, get to and from the campaign office and complete the 12 hours in three days would be next to impossible."

Well, was there someone out there who didn't believe Michelle bama when she said this?

"Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed."

It's possible people thought the 'Save America Time-Card Clocks' wouldn't be installed on every block until the man was actually elected president. But those were probably the people who also thought he wouldn't bestow mass papal blessings in Europe until after he was inaugurated as Commander-in-Chief of the World.

True believers know that the most important thing about a messiah is to accept him completely and uncritically on faith alone, without requiring him to earn the position by persuading the nation of his vision and character before exacting a price to bask in his presence. That's not how divinity works. If you want to hear bama humbly and gratefully accept his nomination to run for the highest office in the land, you're going to have to prove yourselves worthy in advance. That's the usual deal when you're being offered an opportunity to hear the revealed word from the divine mouth in person.

Republicans and other unworthy skeptics are anxiously awaiting notification of the atonements we will have to perform before our cable connections will allow us to observe the coronationnomination speech on our television sets. Will we have to give our bag lunch to a homeless person and forward a signed receipt to Howard Dean? Text message the Top Ten speech quotes by the ne to three unbelievers (& forward copies to the VaticanDNC)? Or will it be sufficient for us to join together in a collective effort to drive down the YouTube traffic at McCain's heretic ad sites prior to the convention?

Just let us know. We're really really looking forward to the big speech in Denver. Not because bama will say anything meaningful. He never does. But we do want the opportunity to see all those adoring eyes and blank faces in the audience. Because we just can't figure out who the hell these idiots are and why they have taken such utter leave of their senses.

The curiosity is killing us.

P.S. Since we're still fighting some glitches in our Comments software, we've opened a new email account so that you can still offer your own thoughts on any recent post. Email them to Instapunk (at) gmail dot com and put the title of the post in the subject block. We'll reproduce any interesting ones in Updates to the original entries.

UPDATES.

A Comment from Thomas:

Of course, the real reason he's demanding this slavery is to ensure that no Republican moles are there to disrupt his coronation.  Only Democrats would be so servile as to accept this forced labor to glorify the anointed one.

Forced labor? Thomas. Didn't Michelle warn you not to be cynical?





Putin and Georgia

As pathetic and self-obsessed as an Oliver Stone movie. But gayer.

RUSSKIES. Has no one examined the real psychology of Putin's latest blind and brutal exercise of SovietRussian power? He's not using the Olympics for cover. It's the exact opposite. He's trying to cover the Olympics, which is China's demonstration that however imperfectly, it has transcended the self-eating nihilism of Marxism to begin building anew. China is showing off its newfound ability to make things, organize vast international events, motivate its people to high achievement rather than mere drab uniformity, and contribute something of beauty and lasting esthetic value to the world.

Russia has been incapable of all these attainments since it exterminated the family of the czar and flattened the Faberge eggs with the largest concrete bunkers the world has ever seen. Putin's move on Georgia isn't a shrewd attempt to get away with something while the world is otherwise engaged; it's simple, megalomaniacal envy. While China has, in a few decades, accomplished the impossible transition from rudimentary agrarian economy to exponentially accelerating industrial might, Putin's Russsia has staggered on like a vodka-soaked parody of all its own worst historical epochs -- with missiles like the rusted rifles of Stalin's WWII army, a third-world steal and murder economy that would have made Rasputin grin, and a ballooning sense of grandeur exhibited by its incompetent leadership that would have made the various Nicholases and Alexanders of the failed Romanoff empire nod in recognition. Meanwhile, Moscow and its great sister cities build nothing, contribute nothing, accomplish nothing, and matter not at all except when they prey on their own neighbors and vandalize every civilized attempt at diplomacy undertaken in the west.


Putin and Medvedev: They WISH.

Alexander has been a fateful -- and fatal -- name for the Russians. Putin sees himself as one, another of his nation's endless claimants to being "The Great." But he's less like his brilliant gay Macedonian hero than he is like John Wayne Gacy, the bullying sodomite serial killer who demonstrated his superior masculinity by raping and killing young men, then burying them under his house.

His people, needless to say, are charmed. Here's a Russian response to the YouTube video above, which was first posted many months ago:

this video is soooo gay, but ,no matter who ever say. putin is a great president, people loves him, he is very disciplined and sirious. he made russia to stand up, and made the world be afraid of russians again. [sic]

How sickeningly and depressingly typical. Of the largest, worst, least civilized, most murderously inept nation in recorded human history. To them, national greatness consists of being feared.

Does anyone know how Russia was actually organized as a nation? The Vikings did it. That's why the name Russia, which still recalls the 'red-headed' ones who swooped in from the west and installed a basic barbarian order on a vast territory of (predominantly, or way too many, at least) lazy, illiterate, self-pitying victims.

I remind you of these things, which are ancient and yet continuously present in a very dangerous contemporary world of nuclear weapons and terrorists, to point out the insanity of thinking Putin could be deterred by diplomacy or that his Georgian adventure is somehow the fault of American foreign policy.

Yes, George Bush misjudged Putin. What he saw as goodness in Putin's eyes was probably infatuation. George wouldn't be so good at detecting that. McCain was undoubtedly more right when he said he looked into Putin's eyes and saw three letters: "K, G, and B."

What does Obama see? I don't even want to know.

Are we all Georgians today? No. We're not. But we should be.

P.S. Since we're still fighting some glitches in our Comments software, we've opened a new email account so that you can still offer your own thoughts on any recent post. Email them to Instapunk (at) gmail dot com and put the title of the post in the subject block. We'll reproduce any interesting ones in Updates to the original entries.

UPDATE.

Alfa comments:

I suspect that the Alexander who is Putin's hero is the great Russian Alexander Nevsky, not that Greek.  Nothing gay about Nevsky.

Uh, talk about proving the opposition's point... "Nothing gay about Nevsky." Exactly. Anything else you'd like to point out?
 




Monday, August 11, 2008


Olympic Notes

(Okay, I give up. The NBC Nazis have scarfed up every video even slightly related.)
This was just unbelievably great. I'll say what our swimmers didn't:"Yippee-ki-yay."

IT'S THE MESSAGE, NOT THE MESSENGER. I have to acknowledge that so far, these Olympic Games are fascinating despite the predictably poor execution by NBC. The venue and the performances are powerful enough to override the already countless bad timing, editing, and content decisions of the network that's making a billion dollars in advertising revenue for the peacock bunch.

As I write this, the USA Women's Basketball Team has just crushed China in a game that was essentially over late in the first quarter. But even more impressive than their dominating performance was the grace of the American players in post-game interviews. They refuse to crow or be anything less than complimentary to their opponents and humble about their own exploits. The Men's team behaved with exactly the same degree of graciousness after their similarly overwhelming victory yesterday against the host team led by Yao Ming. Ditto the miraculously triumphant USA relay team that stunned their trash-talking French rivals in the 4x100 freestyle final last night. There seems to be an American team spirit at work which is exquisitely poised between a ferocious desire to win and a becoming awareness of their responsibility to be the best possible ambassadors for their country. I hope this spirit continues to be exemplified by our athletes throughout the games, and I have no reason whatever to think it won't be.

I'm equally impressed by the Chinese, issues of authoritarian politics aside. I didn't watch the opening ceremonies because I'm not that fond of pure pageantry, particularly when it's staged by said authoritarian regimes. The architecture of the Olympic facilities, though, is a different matter. It reflects the creative vision of a people, not just its government. The Bird's Nest amphitheatre and the Water Cube strike me as masterful designs which convey hopeful intimations about a society in transition. The naturalistic inspiration and asymmetry of the Bird's Nest suggest that China -- despite the horrors of the Cultural Revolution -- has reestablished a fertile connection with its own artistic and philosophical roots. The Water Cube is an incredibly modern expression of the allusive minimalism of dynastic Chinese painting combined with an appreciation of western enlightenment conceptions about the esthetic properties of mathematics. It integrates Le Corbusier into the ancient Asian communion with the symbolic elements, rigidly foursquare and yet as infinitely variable as the waveform reflections of its surface which play across the goggles of every swimmer filmed in the cube by a high-def TV camera. There's something at work under the shifting surface of China that transcends Mao, Stalin, and the self-parodying monumentality of Hitler's 1936 Nazi Olympics.

The Chinese audiences are an equally tantalizing spectacle. They are devoted to their teams and they sing their national anthem with the fervor of a people long trained to idolize the state itself. Yet they are also comfortable idolizing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, happy to wear their Lakers' jerseys to their own nation's coming out party as the world's fastest growing industrial and economic power. It may seem a completely trivial observation to point out that the Chinese Women's Basketball Team was less uniform in its uniforms than the USA Team, but is it trivial? The Chinese Women displayed a decidedly individualistic choice of footwear -- some red, some white, by manufacturers various. Compared to them it was the Americans who looked like a purely homogeneous unit.

There were other signs of Chinese individuality on display in NBC's most execrable event coverage yet -- the truly shameful treatment of women's gymnastics inflicted on the network's prime-time audience last night. I'm not even talking about the commercial breaks every five minutes. I'm talking about the destruction of gymnastics as a sporting event in favor of presenting and editing it as a soap opera plot involving only the Chinese and the Americans. (No, I'm not forgetting the insulting cameo scene displaying the collapse of Romania as a world class gymnastics power. Was that, or was it not, a deliberate object lesson in the supremacy of collectivist virtues over the undisciplined consumerist individualism of the post-communist state? I'm not suggesting you should hear it too, but as I watched the sullenly incompetent beam performance of the one Romanian gymnast shown, I couldn't keep from hearing Michelle Obama's voice saying, "Barack will demand more of you.") And, interestingly, this new world-class rivalry was not cast in terms of entrepreneurial American aspiration versus oppressive authoritarian organization. The only grim exercise facility shown via film was the Romanian-run headquarters of the American team, complete with footage of a starkly empty practice hall lit to look a torture chamber and a gated entrance evocative of the arching "Arbeit Macht Frei" signs crowning the portals of concentration camps.

I'm sure it wasn't intentional. But when the announcers referenced the ongoing controversy about IOC suspicions that China is defying the 16-year-old age requirement with competitors as young as twelve, they also seemed at pains to point out that all of us adults can't even trust our own perceptions about who is old enough to be on an American college campus. And while both teams experienced some major mistakes and setbacks, they made it clear that it was the Americans who were most stricken by their failures -- inconsolable even by the public embrace of their Rosa Kleb-like Romanian coach. The sole competitor on either team who was able to smile after an embarrassing lapse was one of the putative 12-year-old Chinese girls who, we were informed, was regarded by her coaches as supremely talented but "not the hardest worker on the team."

Well, I'm gad of this evidence that a Chinese athlete who screws up isn't looking at a lifetime in some gulag. But I was unnerved by the implied representation of the defending champion USA Women's Gymnastics Team -- with its transplanted Russian anchor, the unsmiling Nastia Liukin, and its red and white uniforms designed around a red star -- as the suddenly besieged heirs of the Soviet gymnastics tradition. Their ascendant rivals were the impressionistically attired members of the exuberant young Chinese team, who -- an inserted documentary piece admiringly informed us -- were the comfortable inheritors of a thousand-year-old Chinese acrobatic tradition which conscripts its 'artists' at the age of three.

(Wrong ideas. Yes. I have them all the time. But please explain why NBC subsequently inserted two meaningless segments -- in pure sporting terms, that is -- about a former Soviet gymnast now competing for Germany because her son's life was saved by that nation's socialized healthcare system AND the performance of a single Russian gymnast resplendent in a glittering rainbow uniform meant to show us the spontaneous rebirth of Russian gymnastics after the post-Soviet democratic decline. (Thank God for Putin?) Just human interest. I know. But is this really a sport anymore? Or it some kind of NBC cultural barometer? If the former, where the hell were all the other teams and their performers?)

It can't be the case that producers and film editors at NBC are subconsciously in love with the cultural paradigm of the New China -- gigantic, omnipotent government presiding over a rising tide of prosperity and a smilingly unified citizenry purchased at the acceptable price of severely limited freedom of speech, religion, and other anti-collectivist political rights.

Of course not. Otherwise, Bob Costas wouldn't have hunted down President George W. Bush and quizzed him about why he was attending the games and what possible impact his public (and private) objections to Chinese authoritarianism could possibly effect. And Costas wouldn't have continued to interrogate the President of the United States about Russian aggression in Georgia and the corruption of U.S. athletics via steroids and EPO until Mr. Bush asked how much longer he was going to be imprisoned in the studio before being allowed to return to the games.

Which returns me to my first point. These games are fascinating. Even the dumbest coverage can't quite conceal the joyful vitality of our nation in this global arena. There was our President, sitting in the stands -- not some lofty box -- to watch the USA Men's Basketball Team win a great victory. There he was again, after the Costas interview, sitting in shirtsleeves at the Water Cube cheering on the Team USA swimmers. He must have seen the stupendous relay victory, though no NBC camera recorded his reaction to the greatest moment yet in these Olympics. And he also had an endearingly awkward moment with the USA Women's Beach Volleyball Team, when he was invited to give an encouraging NFL-type bottom pat to the competitors and couldn't bring himself to do it.



What other possible kind of evidence could you ask for that our elected Commander-in-Chief is, in the most important possible sense, just one of us? A guy who is restrained by his values -- and an entirely legitimate concern about what his wife would say -- from doing what every single male fan of women's beach volleyball in the world would give his eye teeth to do represents the incontrovertible proof that we are still, despite the many disappointing exceptions and lapses, a nation led by basically humble citizen politicians who haven't forgotten where they came from and where they are going home to when the klieg lights are switched off.

Yes, I'm liking the Olympics a lot more than NBC's coverage of them. I can't wait to see what happens next.

P.S. Since we're still fighting some glitches in our Comments software, we've opened a new email account so that you can still offer your own thoughts on any recent post. Email them to Instapunk (at) gmail dot com and put the title of the post in the subject block. We'll reproduce any interesting ones in Updates to the original entries.





O Catastrophe! O Disaster!

We're all going to die! I knew it!!!!

SORRY TO BE CONSISTENT
. Jesus Christ. Sorry. Didn't mean to curse. But I am so so so so so so SO tired of these absolute morons with their Global Warming alarmism schtick. I mean, if people stop believing in the dubious value of your so-called science, do you really think you can reclaim them by describing even worse cataclysms? A ludicrous excerpt:

On a planet 4C hotter, all we can prepare for is extinction

There's no 'adaptation' to such steep warming. We must stop
pandering to special interests, and try a new, post-Kyoto strategy

We need to get prepared for four degrees of global warming, Bob Watson told the Guardian last week. At first sight this looks like wise counsel from the climate science adviser to Defra. But the idea that we could adapt to a 4C rise is absurd and dangerous. Global warming on this scale would be a catastrophe that would mean, in the immortal words that Chief Seattle probably never spoke, "the end of living and the beginning of survival" for humankind. Or perhaps the beginning of our extinction.

The only thing interesting about this article is the comments. Which are blistering..

All I can add is an invitation. Bring your damn dumb Global Warming Science here. No, not your fear scenarios, which are adequately covered by our YouTube video, but any actual science you think you have.

Life in these formerly civilized western nations has become a total joke. Some of us are starting to wish there really were something called anthropogenic Global Warming, just so you could all die from it. Extinction. The rest of us could only be so lucky. That pansy New Agers could actually die from believing in fairy-tale apocalypses. Best reason we've ever heard of for hoping that Global Warming is real and that there's a genuine need to roll western civilization up in vacuum-sealed bags and stow it away in a great big hatbox scented with potpourri.

Problem is, there isn't. There's just a Judy Garland movie that makes all you purposeless clowns feel good about losing everything. You're like gender-confused sheep pinning all your hopes on a Gay Apocalypse. Which can only be undone by the right skipping steps on the yellow brick road to the Ultimate Green Goretopia. Sad-sounding and bleatingly moving on the phonograph but not too credible. Condolences.

One question. Not to be rude or anything. Do you you mind if we melt down your Minis and Bimmers and turn them into A-10 Thunderbolts after you've all perished of another two or three degrees of heat? You know, when your angora and mohair skivvies start bursting into flame from the heat of your panic?


Thunderbolt. We could kick some phony GW ass with that.

Cool. Now we're getting somewhere.

P.S. Since we're still fighting some glitches in our Comments software, we've opened a new email account so that you can still offer your own thoughts on any recent post. Email them to Instapunk (at) gmail dot com and put the title of the post in the subject block. We'll reproduce any interesting ones in Updates to the original entries.




Friday, August 08, 2008


The new 'Young Turks' are here.

Okay, I chickened out. He's also a musician, devoted to rock and roll. rap.
alternative fusion. The sound quality isn't great yet, but he'll figure it out.

PUNKS. Hotair points today to a new voice for conservatism but can't quite bring himself to acknowledge just how significant it is. Reflexively, defenseively perhaps, Ed Morrissey feels compelled to introduce a filter that keeps him in the role of critic looking down:

Something amused me about this beyond the sloganeering, which belies some of the more thoughtful videos at his MySpace TV channel. It was the way he kept looking from side to side while talking about conservatism. It reminded me of conservatives in Minnesota ó furtively checking from side to side while talking politics, making sure that neighbors and fellow parishioners hadnít overheard the conversation. Thatís obviously not whatís going on here, but it certainly looked the same.

Okay, Ed. I understand that you're "amused" and superior to even "the more thoughtful videos" at his MySpace page. Congratulations.

Except that you're not superior to the young man who calls himself Zo. None of of us old guard, old fart conservatives are. Since I took the first link, I have watched every one of his videos, and I am in awe of his talent as an empirical political philosopher, a natural communicator, and an intutitive theologian. He's a student of history and an ingenious master of common sense metaphors (which can be some of the hardest to come up with) and political commentary that slices deftly through rhetoric to the subtext of many of our national discussions. One-liners fall easily out of his videos, but he's not thinking in one-liners. He's only closing on them in the way that a product of the new media knows how to put a period on a point well made.

Conservative and Republican candidates in every election campaign should be required to watch every one of his video performances. He makes the big differentials between conservatives and liberals meaningful in personal terms, and he also demonstrates how to translate those differences into understandable policy positions. He also gives the best sermon in defense of the authority of the Bible I have ever seen delivered live and not in the pages of a very dense book of theology.

For those who understand the origins of this site, this is the kind of youthful rebellion and revitalizing outburst we have been waiting for. As I write this, I still haven't decided which piece to link above. (Now I've decided. His music.) What I have determined is that I will list every single video he's made below. They're ALL worth watching all the way through. This is how we get our inspiration and our sense of mission back

Nitty Gritty.

Jeremiah Wright.

War.

Republicans and Democrats.

Racism & Illegal Immigration.

Change.

Bible Thumpin'.

If Obama offered this kind of hope, he wouldn't be sagging in the polls.

P.S. Since we're still fighting some glitches in our Comments software, we've opened a new email account so that you can still offer your own thoughts on any recent post. Email them to Instapunk (at) gmail dot com and put the title of the post in the subject block. We'll reproduce any interesting ones in Updates to the original entries.




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