Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Letters: The Literary Fruitcakes of Yuletide

Today I will begin my annual ritual or writing the Muley family Christmas newsletter, which my wife and I send out to a small group of understanding and forgiving relatives and friends across the country. For some insane reason I have written a family newsletter for more than a decade now, and I had to learn the hard way how to do it. I’ve discovered through painful personal experience that just sitting down at the keyboard and typing whatever fool thing pops into your head is often a recipe for holiday disaster.

So, as my Christmas gift to you, dear readers, I offer six tips on how to avoid common mistakes in composing your Yuletide missive.

1. Well, so this Christmas there’s a new baby in your house. Wonderful! Please share the news with family and friends in your annual Christmas newsletter. But let me offer a few words of advice. Yes, your readers want to hear about the new addition, and will even indulge you if in your excitement you share some detailed minutiae, such as weight, length, eye and hair color, dimple presence and other common features. But there is such a thing as going too far. By all means, include nothing whatsoever about your little one’s bowel movements (including color, consistency or frequency) or any details about his or her breastfeeding. There should be no mentions of infant rashes, warts, scabs or pustules, and no descriptions of recent illnesses involving technicolored phlegm or mucous, projectile vomiting or uncontrollable slobbering. If you must relate these embarrassing details, save them for the parents’ toast at your child’s wedding.

2. It’s okay to mention in a Christmas newsletter that you have separated from a spouse or partner (this will allow recipients to return at least one gift they might have bought for a welcomed refund), but it is considered quite bad form to use descriptive words such as “weasel,” “vermin,” “slimeball,” “scumbag” or phrases such as “toad-licking two-timer” in your prose. By the same token, it is frowned upon to describe in detail the physical deficiencies of the recently replaced, or share their personal information with your readers, such as your ex’s Social Security, PIN and credit card numbers, the location and passwords of hidden assets and embarrassing nicknames from childhood.

3. Did you take a family vacation this past year? This is prime source material for a Christmas newsletter entry. But in describing your journey, brevity should be your rule. Let readers know where you and your family traveled, the highlights of what you saw, and share any amusing stories that you know will be told for years to come anyway, such as when you dropped your new $1,000 camera down the Grand Canyon and your wife yelled at you for being an idiot in front of all those other people on the donkey trail. But please –– no detailed descriptions of routes taken, hotels and motels stayed in, restaurants visited or souvenirs purchased. Also, don’t include unwanted statistical data, such as the average miles per gallon achieved during your trip, comparisons of unleaded gas prices over five states, quantities of amenities in hotel rooms, and the length of time spent in lines for popular amusement park rides, as opposed to the unrealistically shorter times listed in the guidebooks.

4. If you or any members of your family suffered a serious ailment during the past year and are still here to tell about it, by all means let your readers know that you survived swine flu, or that little Bobby is totally healed from the broken leg he got after riding the pogo stick on the roof. But please, consider your readers. Avoid any in-depth discussions of medications and dosages, and even if physical ailments are mentioned, avoid the urge to include color photographs of incision scars or allergic reactions.

5. Financial solicitations, even if couched as offering a “business opportunity” to invest in gold or junk bonds or chinchilla ranches, or offers to sell anything, especially dubious items such as Dallas Cowboys playoff tickets or autographed copies of the Letters of Paul, are no-nos. Even appeals to buy items sold by your children, such as Girl Scout cookies or lifetime subscriptions to Grit, can come back to haunt you.

6. Finally, if you want to include a recent photo of you and the family with your newsletter, feel free. It’s a good way to let friends and family see just how much the kids have grown, and just how much older, balder and fatter you and your spouse have gotten since the last photo. But remember, almost everyone you send this to has access to both a photo scanner and the Internet. So, if you do something squirrelly like pose in antlers and matching reindeer sweaters, or dress up as characters from “A Christmas Carol,” be prepared to find that your family has earned a prominent place on websites like Awkward Family Photos that feature such goofy Yuletide poses. And remember, the Internet is forever.

(For a great musical performance touching on some of these themes, go here.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Here's what Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, had to say about inspiration in one's work. It's taken from her Nobel Prize lecture on Dec. 7, 1996.
I've mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It's not that they've never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It's just not easy to explain something to someone else that you don't understand yourself.

When I'm asked about this on occasion, I hedge the question too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."

There aren't many such people. Most of the earth's inhabitants work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn't pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven't got even that much, however loveless and boring - this is one of the harshest human miseries. And there's no sign that coming centuries will produce any changes for the better as far as this goes.

And so, though I may deny poets their monopoly on inspiration, I still place them in a select group of Fortune's darlings.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Muley in D.C.!

Photo taken on a recent trip with Mrs. Muley to Washington, D.C. Had a great time. (The way the wind is blowing my hair in this photo, I sorta look like Ed Grimley).

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Now There's Two Places I Can Offend People

The crazy folks here in Waco at the Waco Tribune-Herald have asked me to start doing what they call a "Community Blog," which is their way of saying "a blog by someone not on staff and, therefore, not paid by us."

This should be fun. As a result of doing this, I won't give up Muley's World, but I will probably do most of my stuff on the Trib site. Here's the link, if you're interested.

The good news or bad news, depending on how you feel, is that I will be much more regular with posts on this new blog than I have been lately on Muley's World. I have to play with the grown-ups now, and they expect some deal of regularity.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rancid Rhymes

Here's something I snagged off a departmental newsletter recently. It's supposedly the winners in a Washington Post competition, asking readers to write a two-line rhyme with the most romantic first line, followed by the least romantic second line.

1. My darling, my lover, my beautiful wife:

Marrying you has screwed up my life.


2. I see your face when I am dreaming.

That's why I always wake up screaming.


3. I thought that I could love no other

-- that is until I met your brother.


4. Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you.

But the roses are wilting, the violets are dead, the sugar bowl's
empty and so is your head.


5. I want to feel your sweet embrace;

But don't take that paper bag off your face.


6. I love your smile, your face, and your eyes

Darn, I'm good at telling lies!


7. My love, you take my breath away.

What have you stepped in to smell this way?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Great Teleprompter Moments in U.S. History

A fair number of people -- even liberal Democrats who support him heartily, it seems -- are commenting these days on how absolutely addicted President Barack Obama is to his teleprompter. All recent Presidents have used the handy device to deliver speeches at big events or for moments when every single word must be correct. But Obama apparently uses the teleprompter almost every single time he speaks in public, even at informal events made for off-the-cuff candor. This addiction has caused him at least one embarrassing moment, when a mix-up in the scripts resulted in Obama reading remarks that the Irish Prime Minister was supposed to deliver. As a result, Obama ended up publicly thanking himself for throwing such a great St. Patrick's Day bash before he snapped to it and realized something was wrong.

If I were a comedy television producer, or someone with the technology and crew to put together comedy skits on YouTube, I would create a video called something like "Great Teleprompter Moments in U.S. History," purporting to show that, far from being an aberration, Obama's teleprompter use merely follows a long tradition of U.S. history-makers relying on the wordy little screens at important moments. The video would feature reenactments of scenes such as these:

Oct, 12, 1492
The Bahamas

Christopher Columbus and a small crew emerge from a rowboat and walk the sands of a small island. As soon as the boat is emptied, it is sent back with two sailors to the Santa Maria and returns 30 minutes later, laden with a crude new device called el telepromptero. It is unloaded and set up, and as a crewman cranks the wooden handle that makes the scroll of parchment move upwards, Columbus reads the words claiming the land for Spain.

Sept. 22, 1776
New York City

Captured by the British after the Battle of Long Island, Nathan Hale, America’s first spy, is on the gallows preparing to be hanged. As the noose is placed around Hale's neck, a British soldier gives the order for his death. Before the sentence is carried out, however, a captured American teleprompter is lifted onto the platform and placed in front of Hale. As the crowd listens in respectful silence, Hale reads his stirring final speech, including the famous words, “I only regret that I have but one life to give my country.” Hale is then hanged, and the teleprompter is shot by firing squad.

Nov. 19, 1863
Gettysburg, Pa.

After composing the teleprompter text for the first speech of the day dedicating the Union cemetery at Gettysburg -- a two-hour oration of 13,607 words by Edward Everett -- the writing hand of the government transcriptionist cramps violently, rendering the limb unusable. As he waits for Everett to finish, President Abraham Lincoln orders the pained young man to rest, then proceeds to write out the words of his speech himself. Gazing into the teleprompter under a brilliant Pennsylvania sky, Lincoln delivers the address, which takes the audience by surprise because it is so brief, lasting only two minutes or so. Asked about this later, Lincoln confessed that he had about 30 minutes worth of material he wanted to use, but was only able to write about two minutes worth of text onto the teleprompter before it was his time to speak.

Aug. 5, 1864
Mobile Bay, Ala.

When Admiral David Farragut sees that Union ships ahead of him in the battle in Mobile Bay are turning around after hitting Confederate underwater mines (called torpedoes at the time), he calls for a cabin boy to bring the teleprompter up top. He tells the boy, who has an associate's degree in mass communication, to write him something to say relaying the idea "I wanna go forward, even though we may all get blowed up real good." The boy scribbles two short sentences onto the roll of paper, then as Farragut mounts the command deck, he looks into screen of the sputtering coal-powered teleprompter and shouts to his men, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"

July 20, 1969
The surface of the Moon

As millions watch on television back on Earth, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to set foot on the Moon. As soon as his first step is completed, he turns around and looks back at the hatch of the lunar lander, where crewman Buzz Aldrin is doing his best to position a bulky, battery-powered teleprompter (LV-TELEPROMPTSAT, in NASA language) in the opening. As the world waits, Aldrin pushes the power button, the screen lights up, and Armstrong is free to read out loud the now famous words, "That's one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind." It's later revealed that Armstrong neglected to say the word "a" between "for" and "man" because Aldrin had his finger over part of the teleprompter screen.

March 30, 1981
Washington, D.C.

After delivering a speech at the Washington Hilton Hotel, President Ronald Reagan is shot outside the hotel by gunman John Hinckley, Jr. Coughing up blood from a punctured lung, Reagan is rushed to George Washington University Hospital and is prepared for emergency surgery. Nancy Reagan quickly arrives and is escorted into the ER, where aides are frantically setting up a mobile teleprompter unit carried by the Secret Service. As a speechwriter ordered to the scene nervously taps on the keyboard, a visibly pale Reagan summons a smile, looks into the screen and says to his worried wife, "Honey, I forgot to duck." Aides then wheel the teleprompter into Reagan's hospital room, where it stands ready to give the President something to say when he wakes up after the surgery. Speechwriters busily compose a slew of message possibilities ready for use: "I am thirsty. Can I have some water?;" "Boy, am I sore;" "Did George Bush screw anything up while I was under?," and others.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Be a Hero

I just visited this website, where you can make your own superhero. You choose the gender and lots of different characteristics, and then they assign a superhero name based on what you chose.

Here's my first creation -- a guy who does some serious grocery shopping:

I next tried creating a female of steel:

Give it a try, if you're in one of those "I'm so bored I need some mindless fun" moods.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Something Else

That last post was okay -- needed, I guess -- but if I access this blog and see it once again at the top, I think I'll go crazy.

The problem is I don't have anything truly profound or even entertaining to offer you right now. I mean, the most exciting thing going now, I guess, is that we're headed to Dallas this weekend for a mini-spring break trip with the kids. As part of that, we're going to see the King Tut exhibit, unfortunately without Steve Martin playing the title role.

In lieu of a bracing personal entry (but I hope one will come soon), here's some quotations I've found lately that have struck my fancy, and might strike yours as well.
Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.

Arthur Schopenhauer
Our democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who are not.

Thomas Jefferson
Only the mediocre are always at their best.

Jean Giraudoux
I began to understand that there were certain talkers — certain girls — whom people liked to listen to, not because of what they, the girls, had to say but because of the delight they took in saying it. A delight in themselves, a shine on their faces a conviction that whatever they were telling was remarkable and that they themselves could not help but give pleasure. There might be other people — people like me — who didn’t concede this, but this was their loss. And people like me would never be the audience these girls were after anyway.

Alice Munro, in “Some Women”
Bureaucrats write memoranda both because they appear to be busy when they are writing and because the memos, once written, immediately become proof that they were busy.

Charles Peters
Last time i saw Count Basie, he was in a wheelchair. They wheeled him up onto the stage, he sits down at the piano, and he gives the downbeat, and that band played like they were in heaven. And right in the middle, the band cuts. He had to take one hand and put the other down on it, and he comes down with one note. And it was the greatest note I ever heard in my life.

Les Paul, father of the electric guitar
When we did "School’s Out," I knew we had just done the national anthem. I’ve become the Francis Scott Key of the last day of school.

Alice Cooper
Staying recently in a South Yorkshire town called Rotherham — described in one guidebook as “murky,” an inadequate word for the place — I was interested to read in the local newspaper how the proprietors of some stores are preventing hooligans from gathering outside to intimidate and rob customers. They play Bach over loudspeakers, and this disperses the youths in short order; they flee the way Count Dracula fled before holy water, garlic flowers, and crucifixes. The proprietors had previously tried a high-pitched noise generator whose mosquito-like whine only those younger than 20 could detect. This method, too, proved effective, but the owners abandoned it out of fear that it might damage the youths’ hearing and infringe upon their human rights, leading to claims for compensation.

Theodore Dalrymple, in the Jan. 29, 2009 issue of City Journal

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Farewell, Mr. President

Amid all the news today about President Obama's nomination -- and my prayers are with him as he leads America -- here are some thoughts about the previous president you aren't hearing much about today, in the midst of all the gleeful celebrating. I don't think anyone -- even Republicans or conservatives -- believes Bush governed perfectly. I know there were a number of things he did that I couldn't support. But I think his real character and the things he was right about have been far too overlooked by the mainstream media.

So, I offer a few excerpts from a roundtable about the legacy of outgoing President George W. Bush at National Review Online:

He took a tremendous amount of abuse, particularly from elite opinion, and did not buckle. Neither did he lash out. He showed tremendous personal grace, as during the recent shoe-throwing incident in Iraq. He could be a real cool cat, this president. He has his faults, as everyone knows: They have been well gone over. But what has not been well gone over is that he is kind, decent, honest, principled, devout — and full of love.

The demonization of President George W. Bush was a fait accompli before he was even inaugurated. The rage and hatred against Bush developed before his election and before his political enemies got to know him...Given the circumstances of 9/11, one would think Americans would pull together in these trying times. But each election cycle the Democrats kept doubling down on the hate, and in 2006 they finally got their wish. They were now in power again. Still, their demand to pull out of Iraq was a weak cry. Because they know we won. Because they know Bush was right on the big issue of our time.

When the United States was attacked by al-Qaeda on 9/11, every expert in Alpha Centauri solemnly announced that it was only a matter of time — and not much time, either — before the United States was attacked again. Well, here we are some seven and a half years later and, guess what, it hasn’t happened. I know people — you see what low company I keep — who will tell you with a straight face that President Bush had nothing to do with this run of good luck. “Post hoc,” they sniff, “doesn’t necessarily mean propter hoc, and if America has thus far escaped another terrorist attack, there is no reason to think that W had anything to do with it.” No sane person, I submit, really believes that. Deep down, we all know that the reason the United States has not suffered another terrorist attack is the policies formulated by the president in the aftermath of 9/11.

I am grateful to President Bush for ignoring the rants and raves of the establishment press (and a few uncomprehending National Review contributors who shall remain nameless), while persistently doing what he had determined was the right thing to do. It is simply pathetic to watch E. J. Dionne and other victims of Bush Derangement Syndrome miss this part of the man’s character to the bitter end. After the triangulation of the Clinton years, after 9/11, and in the face of the biotech challenge, America badly needed a president who didn’t govern by focus groups and polls. That so many people resented this says, I fear, more about our political culture than it does about George W. Bush.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Good Friends

Another break from the dadgum Grocery Chronicles, just to tell a quick true life story,

My daughter Rebecca had her wisdom teeth removed this past Friday, and her face has been very swollen since then -- so swollen, in fact, that for a few days she went around the house with a scarf over her face (an idea she got, I think, from the movie "Penelope.") We finally convinced her that, instead of making her less noticeable, the scarf made her look like someone about to rob the 3:45 stagecoach from Dodge City, so she eventually stopped wearing it.

We'd all agreed that if Rebecca was still quite swollen on Monday morning, her mother and I would let her stay home from the first day back to school, since she's a good student and had her homework assignments to work on. She woke up yesterday still swollen, so she stayed home and missed the day of school.

Even though she was still almost as swollen this morning, she knew she'd have to return to school or risk falling behind. So she went, not too excitedly. And she made it through, although she claims EVERYONE noticed.

Here's the unusual little story part. Rebecca's got a great group of girls as her friends, and they all knew why she was missing classes. It turns out that there was a party at school she had to miss yesterday, so her friends created some sort of Rebecca "puppet" or "doll" that they not only took to the party in her absence, but that they faithfully took to each or her classes and placed in her empty chair.

This story doesn't have any big moral, but I just think it's nice for her to have such good (and creative) friends.