How long do you think it takes to have a conversation you don’t wanna have?

Friday night, I took my wife out to get some coffee to get her a few minutes away from the house. There’s a corner in the front of the store next to the window that we always sit in, and it seems like some huckster is always huckstering something there.

And did we ever find a doozie on this Friday night.

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The sad story of Scott Spiezio

Scott Spiezio was a mediocre baseball player who could really rise to the occasion. A good defensive first baseman with a so-so bat, he was nevertheless a key part of the Anaheim Angels’ 2002 World Series team. During the regular season he hit .285 with 12 home runs, and when injuries called for it, he slid across the diamond, filling in capably at third base. During the postseason, he went ona tear and hit .327 with three home runs.

In 2004 he signed a lucrative contract to play third base for the Seattle Mariners. His career quickly imploded, with only a .215 batting average in 2004. The next season, he sported a microscopic .064 batting average in 29 games and the Mariners released him in August.

In 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals gave him a chance as a bench player. He filled in at five positions: first base, third base, second base, and left and right field. He also hit well, and his clutch hitting in the postseason when other players faltered made him a fan favorite.

Unfortunately in 2007, the honeymoon ended. The 2007 Cardinals had a lot of off-field problems. First, manager Tony LaRussa was involved in an embarrassing DWI incident. Then pitcher Josh Hancock plowed into a tow truck at high speed on an interstate while driving drunk, killing himself. Then Spiezio abruptly left the team, checking himself into rehab for unspecified substance abuse problems.

Spiezio returned with a lot of fanfare. St. Louis fans are quick to remember past heroics and eager to forgive when someone makes an effort to right wrongs. In late January 2008, he spoke to St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Derrick Goold of ways to avoid making what he called “bad decisions,” and taking responsibility as an example-setter.

What Spiezio didn’t mention in that interview was that about a month earlier, in late December, he’d made at least one of those bad decisions. According to a California police report, he got behind the wheel of his BMW after drinking vodka, wrecked the car after driving erratically, and fled the scene. A neighbor then tried to help him, and that ended in a fight, with Spiezio throwing punches at the neighbor and slamming him into a wall.

On February 27, the story hit. Spiezio was wanted in California, facing six charges. The Cardinals promptly released him.

Unless there was an unusual provision in his contract, the Cardinals will pay Spiezio about $2.5 million to not play baseball this year. Over the course of his 10-year career, he’s already made nearly $17 million. He should be more than set for life. Even if that money is gone, this year’s salary should provide for him and his children for the rest of his life.

The question is whether he’s lost enough.

I don’t know what will happen next to Scott Spiezio. He had a good job with the Cardinals, a good organization where he fit in well and the fans loved him. Right now is a bad offseason to be unemployed. A lot of talented players are still trying to find work. Some of them have more baggage than Spiezio, but some don’t. Spiezio does have several things going for him: He’s young enough to still have two or three or more productive seasons left, plays five positions competently, he switch-hits and has some power. He probably can’t be an everyday player anymore, but there aren’t very many players who have his mix of skills and he could be a useful player coming off the bench for almost any team–if he can keep it all together.

I can see Spiezio landing on his feet and perhaps even ending up on a contending team. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to see him playing in the World Series again this year.

Staying clean and sober is the harder challenge. I know from watching my dad and others struggle with alcohol that the only way you overcome it is when you hit bottom and realize that unless you overcome the addiction, you will most likely lose absolutely everything that matters to you (if you haven’t already). And even then, it’s possible to relapse, however briefly. As far as anyone knew, former Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter had been clean and sober for the better part of 21 years when he died from side effects of recreational cocaine use in 2002.

I believe the Cardinals did the right thing by releasing Spiezio. It sends a much-needed message to him, the organization, and the fans that no matter how versatile and important you are, staying free of substance abuse is more important than playing baseball.

For Spiezio’s sake, I hope that whatever happened in California is an isolated incident and he is able to do whatever he has to do to keep it that way. History is littered with the names of good baseball players whose lives turned tragic in spite of what they accomplished on the field. There’s no need for him to become another one of them.

2016 update: A couple of months after I wrote this, Scott Spiezio signed with the Atlanta Braves as a free agent. They released him a week later. Spiezio never played baseball in the major leagues again. From time to time he makes promotional appearances in St. Louis, where fans still fondly remember his role in the 2006 postseason.

BMW is opening a plant in India

Here’s the best tidbit from the article I found:

“The Indian automobile market offers significant growth potential in the long term. With our increased presence there, we will be well positioned to fully tap into this potential,” Chief Executive Helmut Panke said in a statement.Well, duh. All those Indian IT workers are going to need fancy cars to buy once their salaries get more in line with the rest of the world.

Are other automobile manufacturers listening?

The road to financial independence

Early in The Millionaire Next Door, Danko and Stanley single out the Scottish. When my wife, Emily, read it, she said, “That explains everything about you!”

When I read it, I thought it explained everything about my two grandfathers–one was rich, one was poor, both were Scottish, and both spent their money pretty much the same way.

I’ve been reading a lot of these kinds of books because I’m not going to let what happened to us back in May ever happen again.But I blame Emily. She’s the one who started bringing me these kinds of books.

So what am I doing? I can’t list everything, but I can definitely give enough examples to highlight this Scot’s mindset.

Pick up that quarter. You know that adage that if a lawyer drops a quarter, it costs him more money to bend down and pick it up than to leave it be? Forget that. A lawyer standing in a parking lot isn’t billing time. I always pick up that quarter. I’m not a vulture–if I see someone drop a coin or three, I pick them up and hand them to the person. But if it’s on the ground and there’s no sign of the rightful owner, it goes in my pocket, whether it’s 75 cents or a penny.

Be scrappy. When I was out of work, I walked around picking up aluminum cans. At 45 cents a pound with a 10-pound minimum (a pound is roughly 35 cans), it was a slow way to make money. But if you’re out walking for exercise anyway, pick ’em up. I pick up cans when I spot them in parking lots, and I save the cans the local hoodlums throw in my yard. The last time we took cans in, we got more than $8. That pays for dinner for a night or two, if you cook. I only gather cans when someone’s not paying me to do something else, but during those times, why not?

Pay down your debt. Once Em and I got on our feet financially and it was clear we wouldn’t have to live off our savings anymore, we paid off our cars. We’d been making extra payments anyway. By paying off her 5-year loan in 3 years and mine in 2, we probably saved $3,000 in interest charges. That 3 grand is going to come in handy.

And that’s Biblical: Romans 13:8 says, “Owe no man anything, except love.” Does that mean my home mortgage and my car loans are sin? Yep. At least we’ve got two sins out of our lives.

If you can’t pay it all off, make extra payments. Even tiny extra payments help. Do a Google search for a financial calculator. Plug in your home mortgage. Many will figure the effects of extra payments for you. On my mortgage, just $10 a month pays off my house a full month sooner. A lousy ten bucks a month eliminates a single $1,000 mortgage payment. I can come up with 10 bucks. About 18 months ago I quit buying a doughnut and coffee at work, taking a thermos and a couple of packets of oatmeal every morning so I’d quit spending $1 a day on those things. The total savings per month was almost 20 bucks. Packing my lunch saved another couple of bucks a day. You get the idea.

Initially I was doing it for hobby money, until I realized how much more I would save by eliminating debt first. Once that $1,000 mortgage payment and $300 car payment are no longer over my head, I can buy a lot more $10 train cars. Even if the price doubles by then, which it probably won’t.

Keep an eye out for business opportunities. My brother in law has the right idea. He and his wife bought the laundromat in the town they live in. They have to fix something once a week, but compared to their regular jobs, it’s easy money. Within a few years it will have paid for itself and the money will just be there.

He’s looking to start another business too. Ethanol costs about $1.84 a gallon and the price is steady. That’s 70 cents less than a gallon of gasoline sells for in their town. So a lot of farmers use ethanol. Many would anyway, because they’d rather support corn farmers than middle eastern oil tycoons. So he’s looking to buy an ethanol station.

Emily and I moonlight selling stuff online. She loves shopping at thrift stores and yard sales. I spotted a copy of How to Make a Fortune With Other People’s Junk and bought it (with a coupon, of course). We’re not following it exactly, but it put us on the right track. We’re small time but we’re profitable, and now she’s getting paid to do one of her favorite things.

The goal isn’t the high life. This might be the most important thing. The reason most wealthy people stay wealthy is because their goal isn’t a swanky $500,000 home in a ritzy suburb with two new foreign luxury cars in the driveway all the time.

Don’t get me wrong: I may not drive a Honda Civic all my life. But I could see myself driving a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord whether my net worth was $160,000 or $16 million. A BMW or Mercedes (or a Lincoln or Cadillac, for that matter) does nothing to improve quality of life.

The goal is something completely different: not to be anyone’s slave.

A year ago, whenever my phone rang after hours, I had to answer it. If I failed to answer the phone more than maybe once a year, I was afraid I’d be fired. So I picked up the phone and did whatever the person on the other end asked, whether it was reasonable or not, whether it made sense or not. Sometimes that meant I had to cancel plans. But it meant extra money, and I thought it proved how indispensible I was.

And it was all over one Thursday afternoon. There were cutbacks at work, and my position was eliminated. So I got in a car that belonged to Honda and drove to a house owned by the bank, where I sat down (at least the couch was owned by me) to figure out how much money was in the bank and how many months that money would last while I looked for another job.

Freedom is being able to say yes when the phone rings because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s what you have to do in order to support your lifestyle. Freedom is when it doesn’t matter if your job evaporates because you boss’ boss’ boss screwed up and lost a horrific amount of money because the main reason you’re working for him is because it’s more interesting than sitting around at home watching daytime TV.

Most people don’t have a job. Their job has them. And the main reason is because their lifestyle has them.

In a way I’m glad I learned this at age 30. I’m also very glad that Emily understands it, and that when I can’t explain something peculiar about the way I spend or (more often) don’t spend, she trusts me. This doesn’t work very well when only one person is on board.

And as long as both of us can hold down a job for about five years–a reasonable expectation, since both of us have done it before–we’ll get there.

So we\’re complaining about our economy…

OK, so this is a bit late coming, and I haven’t really been able to think this through as well as I should, so I hope some other people will think through it with me. The problem: Our trade deficit is up.

The solution is to devalue the dollar. Supposedly.Americans crave cheap, foreign-made products. Multinational corporations crave cheaply made products from third-world countries that they can mark up astronomically because of the brand recognition and achieve monstrous profits that they can report to their shareholders every quarter.

To that end, the United States has encouraged outsourcing and granted most-favored nation trading status to totalitarian regimes such as China who are willing to create favorable conditions for this way of doing business.

And now the United States is complaining about continually breaking its own records for trade deficits.

The current administration is responding by devaluing the dollar. That’s a classic idea. By devaluing your currency, you make your own goods less expensive abroad and you make foreign goods more expensive inside your own borders.

But I see at least two problems with that policy. The ruthless Chinese tie the value of their currency to the U.S. Dollar. So devaluing the dollar does absolutely nothing to help our trade deficit with China. Chinese goods continue to cost the same amount of money here, and the price of U.S. goods in China remains the same.

The price of a BMW or Mercedes automobile goes up, but the people who are willing to spend $60,000 on a car are probably also willing to spend $65,000. It only increases the monthly payment by about $80. It might make the price of a Cadillac look a little bit better, but there are plenty of people who believe the BMW is the better car and will pay the extra money. Meanwhile, Europeans will continue to not buy U.S. cars, because Europeans just aren’t very fond of them.

The second problem is that the United States just doesn’t produce all that much anymore. Consumer electronics are almost exclusively made in China, with the main exception being some high-end consumer electronics still produced in South Korea or Taiwan. Toys are almost exclusively made in China. Some large items such as appliances are made here because they are too expensive to ship overseas, but that cuts both ways.

Buying American helps. But we didn’t do that 20 years ago when we still made stuff here. Now it just might be too late.

Part of me also thinks that we need to quit complaining. Look at these plans for a bungalow house from 1912. This house cost $900 to build–assuming one paid someone else to do it. You provided the land. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $17,000 today. Our grandparents were raised in houses like this. By comparison, my house is a mansion.

Today, without blinking, we’ll pay that much for a car.

Just two or three miles away from me, houses fitting the modern idea of a proper size for raising a family are being built. They’re about twice the size of mine and they sell for about $400,000. Houses like those from 1912, no longer suitable for storing our lawnmowers, are claimed under eminent domain and razed to make room for big-box stores to sell more foreign-made goods. I’m not sure what becomes of the people who by their own choice were still living in them.

Republicans like to blame high taxes for what they call the decline of the traditional American family, where only one parent had to work. Democrats ask what was so great about that, and blame the modern struggle to make ends meet on low wages or discrimination.

But if we lived within our means, we’d be able to afford to buy U.S.-made goods from stores owned by our neighbors, who are far less likely to abuse eminent domain and deprive people of their property rights.

This is a mess of our own making. The government may have encouraged it somewhat, but the government didn’t make it and the government can’t fix it. That job belongs to us.

Assuming it isn’t too late, that is.

The tightrope of Web design

There are few challenges more daunting than designing a truly first-rate Web site.
And I’m not here to tell you how to design a first-rate Web site, because I’m not so arrogant as to assert that I’ve ever done it. I’ve tried it a dozen or so times. Some of the results have been good enough to be worthy of staying on the Web for a while. Some of them have been so bad that if someone were to hand me a printout today, I’d question what I could have possibly been thinking when I did it, and I might even question whether the design was mine. Yes, I’ve done my best to forget a lot of them.

And a lot of people are probably wondering why I’m making such a big deal out of this, since making a Web site is something that it seems like everybody does. I think everyone I went to college with had a Web site that had pictures of their cats, lists of all the CDs they owned (or wished they owned), their resumes, and links to all of their friends’ sites.

But that’s precisely the issue. Since everyone does it, it’s difficult to stand out.

There are actually three elements that make up a truly first-rate site, and the biggest problem with most near misses is that they only hit one or two of those elements. Other sites, like most personal home pages that populated the Web in the early ’90s, missed them all.

Content. A first-rate site has to have something to say. The biggest problem with those early personal home pages was that people had nothing to say. Finding clever ways to present boring and useless information wears off quickly. Ideally, a site should give some order to that content, so people can find what they’re looking for. A Weblog dedicated to the rebuilding of vintage BMW motorcycles could be extremely useful, but its usefulness will wear off very quickly if there isn’t a good way to find it.

Community. The best stuff comes from the questions people ask, or the answers people provide. Just ask any teacher. Anything that provides opportunity for banter between content provider and reader, or between readers, is a good thing. If there’s a way to organize and search that banter, so much the better. That hypothetical BMW motorcycle blog would be a lot more useful with people asking questions and sharing their own experience.

Design. This is last, and possibly least. Yet for many people it’s the most challenging. This is partly because some people aren’t naturally gifted in this area (I’m not), and partly because of the crude tools involved. There are probably other factors. We’ll concentrate on this area though, because it’s probably the only area that’s debatable.

Some people question whether design is even necessary. This is a sure sign that an awful lot of designers are doing their jobs. Design’s job is to set the mood, present the content in a facilitating manner, and get out of the way.

The challenge the Web presents is that power users are used to setting all the settings on their computer and it staying that way. They set the colors and the font and the window size the computer should use for everything, and some of them resent it when anyone imposes anything different on them. Some of them even seem to resent the use of p-tags to denote the end of a paragraph. They’ll decide when a paragraph ends and a new one begins, thank you very much. What’s the original author of the piece know, anyway?

On the other hand, you have users who are still trying to figure out what that blasted mouse is for. (This is in contrast to the people like me who’ve been using a computer for 20 years and are still trying to figure out what that blasted mouse is for.) They don’t know where those settings are and don’t care to set them themselves; they expect to be able to go to a Web page, and if it just looks like a raw data feed, they’ll go on to the next place because it looks nicer.

Those power users have a difficult time with this concept, but mankind has learned a few things in the thousands of years since the first time someone applied ink to parchment. Most of it was through trial and error, but most of that wisdom is timeless. Throwing that away is like deciding you don’t like the number zero. For example, in the case of Roman alphabets, a line length of between 50 and 80 characters reads much faster than any other length. If reading a page makes you feel tired, check the line length.

Knowing that, a browser window expanded to full screen is too short and too wide. Books and magazines and newspapers are vertically-oriented for a reason. So the primary navigation goes along the side, because there’s horizontal room to spare and vertical room is too precious to waste on something not content-oriented. Most computer users don’t want to think about this kind of stuff.

When it comes to font selection, things get a little bit easier. Fonts with serifs (feet and ears, like Times) look elegant and they’re easy to read because the serifs guide the eye. Sans-serif fonts (like Arial, which is a Helvetica ripoff) look really good when you blow them up big, but when you run them too small, the eye gets confused. The problem is that computer screens don’t have enough resolution to really do serifs justice. So the best thing to do in most situations is to run a sans-serif font with lots of line spacing. The extra space between the lines helps to guide the eye the same way serifs will. If you notice the typography, the designer has probably done a poor job. If you feel physically tired after reading the piece, the designer definitely has done a poor job.

Brightness and contrast are another issue. The rule is that for short stretches, you can read just about anything. That’s why you’ll see photos run full-page in magazines with the caption superimposed on top. But for reading anything more than a paragraph, you need a fair bit of contrast. Our society is used to black text on white. White or light grey text on black should theoretically work as well, but we’re used to light backgrounds, so we struggle sometimes with dark backgrounds.

But contrast done well can extend beyond convention. It’s possible to make an eye-catching and perfectly readable design with orange and blue, assuming you use the right shades of orange and blue and size elements appropriately. If you don’t feel physically tired after reading it, the designer did a good job, even if you don’t like blue and orange.

The problem with Web design is multifaceted. Not all browsers render pages the same way. This was a nightmare in the mid-90s, when Microsoft and Netscape sought to gain advantages over one another by extending the HTML standard and not always incorporating one another’s extensions. Netscape and Opera deciding to release browsers that follow the standards regardless of what that does to pages developed with Microsoft tools is a very good thing–it forced Microsoft to at least act like it cares about standards. So if a designer is willing to work hard enough, it’s possible to make a page that looks reasonably close in all the major browsers today.

HTML never helped matters any. HTML is a very crude tool, suitable for deliniating paragraphs from headings and providing links but nothing else. You can tell from looking at the original standard that no one with design background participated in its creation. Anything created in strict HTML 1.0 will look like a page from a scientific journal. To adjust line spacing or create multi-column layout, people had to resort to hacks–hacks that browsers will react to in different ways.

XHTML and CSS are what journalism students like me toiling in the early ’90s trying to figure out what to do with this new medium should have been praying for. It’s still not as versatile as PostScript, but it’s very nearly good enough as a design language.

The final design hurdle, though, has always been with us and will only get worse. You could always tell in the early ’90s what pages were created on campus with $10,000 workstations and which ones were created on computers the student owned. Lab-created pages used huge fonts and didn’t look right at any resolution below 1024×768. Meanwhile, I was designing for 14-inch monitors because that was what I had. That 14-inch monitor cost me 300 bucks, buddy, so I don’t want to hear any snickers!

Today, you can buy a decent 19-inch monitor for what I paid for that 14-incher. But as monitors have gotten larger, resolutions have only varied more. A lot of people run 17-inch or even 19-inch monitors at 640×480. Sometimes this is because they haven’t figured out how to change the resolution. Sometimes it’s because they like huge text. Flat-panel displays generally look gorgeous in their native resolution but terrible in any other, so it’s not fair to ask a flat-panel user to change. These displays became affordable within the past couple of years, so they are more common now than ever. A typical flat-panel runs at 1024×768 or 800×600. And on the other extreme, a 21-inch monitor capable of displaying 1600×1200 comfortably (or higher) can be had for $700.

So, since you can’t predict the resolution or window width people will be using, what do you do? CSS and XHTML provide a bit of an answer. It’ll let you create a content column that scales to the screen size. And if you’re really, really careful, you can specify your elements’ sizes in relative terms, rather than absolute pixel measurements. But this messes up if you have lots of graphics you want to position and line up correctly.

And some designs just stop working right when you mess with the font size. Mine don’t, primarily because I’m a disciple of Roger Black. I don’t have any really strong feelings about Black, it’s just that the first book I read by a designer that I really understood was co-written by Black. And most of Roger Black’s techniques work just fine when you crank up the font sizes. If anything, they look better when you make the fonts big enough that your neighbor can read them when you have your curtains open.


More from across the Big Pond. I got this from Chris Miller, one of my editors at Computer Shopper UK, yesterday. Always good to hear from him because he makes me think, even though we rarely agree about anything but magazine design.

Hi Dave

I’ve been looking at the web page and I’m glad you like the ‘Window cleaner’ illustration from the new issue – much better than the blue blobs. Also glad you are holding up Shopper UK as a paragon of design. Thanks.

I shall avoid the subject of John Ashcroft, whom you appear to revere for all the wrong reasons. What I really want to say is that I think you need to prioritise your outrage. A ‘sick, sick society’ is not one where a high school can produce a play about rape, but one where children are shot and killed in schoolyards every day. The purpose of art is sometimes to shock – insecurity and violence are perfectly valid themes to explore. And why tell a story about secure, confident people who know exactly what they are doing? Where’s the drama in that? If that were all that was allowed, there would be no “Romeo and Juliet”, no “Jane Eyre”, no “Jude the Obscure”, no “Psycho” – cultural landmarks all.

Guns, however, are a serious social problem in your country which no-one seems to want to do anything about because of some semi-mythological “constitutional right” – which is, if I may speak frankly, bulls–t. I’m tired of the excuses everybody uses – guns mean massive profits and no-one, except maybe a few Ivy League intellectuals and northern-California hippies, is really serious about banning them. This despite Columbine, the disgruntled postal workers, the dot com rage and countless other pointless and avoidable deaths.

High school plays are not the scourge of American society.

Cheers now

I think you take me for having oversimplified far more than I have. Inappropriate high school plays are mostly a symptom of the problem–I won’t say they don’t cause problems, but no, we won’t solve all our social ills by toning down our school plays or our television. But it wouldn’t hurt anything either.

Likewise, getting rid of all our guns won’t eliminate all our violence. Guns are outlawed in Britain, but does anyone really believe the IRA doesn’t have guns? But there are other, more creative and more effective ways to kill people and blow things up than to use guns, and you can do it with regular, perfectly legal household items, as the IRA has so effectively demonstrated over the years.

It’s not like massacres happen every day in the United States. Once or twice a year, someone’s caught planning one, like earlier this week, and on the occasional God-forsaken day, an event like Columbine happens.

But banning handguns is a very superficial solution to a bigger problem–no less superficial than banning school plays or a particular television show. Banning guns won’t keep them out of the hands of criminals. Even if it would, desperate or very angry people would commit their crimes with knives or other weapons, just as they did before guns were reliable. The irrefutable fact is that in the handful of states that have gone the opposite extreme and enacted concealed weapons laws, crime has gone down. Social engineers HATE to talk about that because it goes beyond all the hip, chic theories of the day. So a guy walks into McDonald’s and starts shooting. He’s in control. But then some gun-totin’ cowboy (to use the popular image of Americans) whips out his gun and from behind the cover of a table, starts shooting back. The odds are suddenly changed. Can the citizen with the gun prevent anyone from getting hurt? No. But he greatly increases the probability of the one person in the building who deserves to die in such situations (the armed gunman) of sustaining bodily harm of some sort, and greatly decreases the number of potential casualties. And what if there are two or three snipers? The out-of-control situation gets back under control real quick, with minimal harm.

You don’t hear of these situations often because 1) they don’t happen very often and 2) the hard left-leaning press hates these stories.

But remember, this works in the United States but sounds like insanity in Europe because of the differences in our culture. In Europe, private ownership of weapons was a threat to the government, so it generally didn’t happen. In the Americas, weapons were absolutely vital to protect yourself on the frontier–there were hostile animals out there, and yes, hostile people. As the frontier pushed west, weapons were less essential, but they didn’t become unnecessary. Then we gained independence, and the government favored private ownership of guns early on, partly because a citizens’ militia meant there was little need for a standing army, which saved tax dollars, which kept the citizens happy because they hated taxes. That didn’t last, but guns remained a necessity in the west for about a century. To a degree, they still are a necessity in some segments of our society–there are still predators out there that threaten your livestock. Guns are part of our culture, and you won’t transplant overnight the disarmed European culture that formed over a timeframe of centuries to the United States. But the Wild West approach still works here.

But this, too, is a symptom. The greater problem is that we’ve lost our moral compass. OK, so you don’t like my religion. Demonstrate to me that a society that says it’s OK to kill, OK to cheat on your spouse, OK to steal, OK to disrespect your parents, and OK to lie can thrive. Find me one. You won’t.

Whether you like the religion or not, you can’t deny that its set of morals just plain works. But so few teach right and wrong anymore–now you just do what feels good. It feels good to cheat on your wife, so you should do it. You’re liberated. OK. So how is that different from me deciding it feels good to kill my former neighbor who caused me so much grief? Or what about my current neighbor’s nice black BMW? Wouldn’t that be a much nicer ride than my Dodge Neon? Why not steal that? If it feels good, I should do it, right?

Personally, I fail to see the difference.

So what’s the matter here? We’ve got a very self-centered society, interested in very little other than individual pleasure. So go screw around, it’s fun. The eventual result of that is kids. That’s OK, they’re fun too when they’re winning trophies and doing good. Just don’t get in my way. Here’s the remote. Here’s a video game. Have fun. Don’t bother me. And the kids grow up with parents (or a parent) respecting no one but themselves, and they learn that behavior.

So the kids grow up. Their most basic needs of food and clothing and shelter are being met. Usually. But their emotional needs aren’t. Their parents aren’t really there for them. So they don’t mature properly. They don’t exactly learn right and wrong. Their parents don’t model it for them, and they sure aren’t being taught it in school. Growing up is tough. I remember. I was a smart kid, too smart for my own good maybe, and yeah, it made me unpopular. A lot of people didn’t like it. Plus I wasn’t a big guy. I’m 5’9″, 140 pounds now. (Below average height and below average weight, for the benefit of those on the metric system.) At 14, I was 5’4″, not even 100 pounds. I was an easy target. I got in my share of fights, and I usually didn’t win. For one, the bully was almost always bigger than me. For another, I was always outnumbered anyway. Growing up too smart can be as bad as growing up the wrong race. F. Scott Fitzgerald got it right in The Great Gatsby, when his character Daisy said, after her daughter was born, “All right, I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

Actually, he got it half right. The best thing a guy can be in this world is a beautiful little fool, or better yet, a big hulking fool. People like dumb, beautiful people, because they’re good to look at and they’re non-threatening.

I’ll be brutally blunt: I grew up with a lot of jackasses, and frankly, there were times that I thought the world would have been a much better place if someone brought a gun to school and pumped some lead into their ugly faces. There. I said it.

When I read about the Columbine killers, it resonated with me. I understood those guys completely. One of them was the brains of the outfit. The other was a follower, pure and simple. But I understood how they felt, I understood (and even dug) the music they listened to, and for a time I even dressed like those two did. One of my former classmates even told me after the event, “Those two guys remind me of you.” After all, I used to run around in a black trenchcoat, black t-shirt and black jeans and combat boots, looking gloomy and listening to Joy Division and The Sisters of Mercy.

And don’t get me wrong. My dad had guns. My dad had a lot of guns. He kept the really big stuff locked up, but he had handguns stashed. There was a Derringer he kept in his sock drawer. He had another gun he kept stashed inside the couch in the basement. For all I know he had others. He taught me how to shoot the Derringer. He also taught me how to shoot a .22-calibre rifle. I wasn’t very good, but at close range you don’t have to be.

So why didn’t I turn into one of those guys? My dad taught me to respect human life. Dad was a doctor. Dad even treated a couple of guys on death row. There was a guy who used to hire drifters to steal cattle, then sell them quickly. Then he’d kill them to eliminate the evidence (and cheat them out of their share of the money). I don’t remember how many times he did this. My dad had a brief encounter with him while he was getting an x-ray. They exchanged words, and it wasn’t exactly nice. “Meanest sonofabitch I ever met,” he recalled. I asked him why he treated him, especially seeing as they were going to kill him anyway. Know what he said? He said it wasn’t his job to kill him. It was his job to make sure he had the same quality of life (or as close to it) as anyone else. Killing the man was the state’s job, if it ever got around to it.

So if my dad could respect the life of this man, who by the account of everyone who ever met him wasn’t worth the oxygen he breathed over the course of a day, then shouldn’t I respect the lives of the people at school?

Dad (and Mom too) taught me right and wrong. And they didn’t ignore me, they disciplined me when I stepped out of line. The worst happened when I was 2 or 3. I was being the epitome of brat, and making matters worse, we were guests at a family friend’s house. My mom took me out to the garage, partly to figure out what to do with me. Well, it was March or so, so it wasn’t too cold in there, and it wasn’t too hot, and there was absolutely nothing to do in there either, so she found a lawn chair and told me I had to sit there until I decided to act civilized. Then she went back in the house. Our host asked, “Where’s David?” and my mom told her. After about fifteen minutes, she came back out and asked if I could act civil. I said yes.

That was the most trouble I was ever in. Yes, I got spanked a few times (but it was a very few), and I got yelled at a few times. But with my parents, discipline was consistent, and it was swift. And because it was those things, it was rare–I didn’t step out of line much.

I don’t think the idea that if I were to commit a crime, I might be able to beat the system ever occurred to me until I was 18 or 19. If I didn’t beat the system at home or at school, why should I expect to be able to beat the government?

So no, I never thought of killing my antagonizers. And that’s fine. They got theirs. My biggest antagonizer never finished school. At 17, his parents kicked him out of the house. He drifted around a couple of years, living out of a van and the occasional cheap motel, then finally settled down. At age 21, he was working in a restaurant, doing the same job as a lot of 17-year-olds. He’d be 27 now, and if there’s anything more pathetic than a 14-year-old loser, it’s a 27-year-old loser, and anyone who knew us both would see it now.

Meanwhile, I kept working, doing my best at what I was good at, doing my best to ignore the taunts, and a funny thing happened. At age 17, the taunts stopped. People didn’t mess with the seniors–we were the oldest people in the school besides the teachers. We’d paid our dues. We earned our respect. And the seniors didn’t mess with each other. Being smart became almost… admirable. In college, that was even more so. And get out into the professional world, and it’s even more so. The things that people made fun of you for in school raise eyebrows now. I’m not at the pinnacle of success, but I have everything I want or I can get it.

So, coming back around again… It starts at home. It starts with the family paying attention to its members, and doing its duty. Morals may not be any fun, but an immoral society is even less fun. Certain things like life, dignity, and personal property have to be honored absolutely. Do these things, and you won’t come out all bad. The occasional bad apple will still slip through, but it’ll be an oddity, and a whole lot easier to deal with.

Do these things, one family at a time, and I don’t care what culture you’re in, you won’t go wrong. The whole culture will benefit, with or without guns, with or without questionable forms of entertainment.