Thursday, October 28, 2004

Nightmare of Elm Street

This is my last chance to yap about the 2004 presidential election before it happens. Also, I have no idea as of this writing how the World Series has developed, either. So let's talk about a metaphor!

The metaphor I have in mind has to do with the fact that I learned at an early age to dislike sports. I have told a part of this tragedy before. How I wore glasses in grade school. How, when it came time for us kids to play baseball for gym class, my teacher realized the threat that my glasses posed if I were hit in the face with a baseball. As she herself put it, my glasses would break into deadly razor sharp shards and pierce my eyes on their way to my brain, where doctors would be helpless to remove them, and I would either die in violent throes of agony, or I would be a vegetable for the rest of my life.

Therefore she made me go out and play right-field blind. Therefore I was hit on the head with a ball which I could not see coming. Therefore I did not die or become a vegetable, thank you teacher. Instead, I became traumatized for life.

Actually, I had already been traumatized for life three years earlier. That was when my father took me to a Red Sox game. I was six, and I had never seen a baseball game before. At the time we lived at Fort Devens, an army base about 35 or 40 miles from Fenway Park, so seeing the Red Sox was well within reach. It's also relevant that we were living on a street named after a Civil War battle, Chancellorsville Street. It has since been renamed Elm Street -- this is absolutely true -- to make it easier to spell.

You see, when I went to that Red Sox game, I thought the idea was to watch a baseball game, yell on behalf of the good guys, eat some hotdogs, see them win, and go home happy. My father had neglected to tell me that the good guys don't always win.

All he had to do to prepare me was to explain to me what our street name was about. Namely, what did transpire at Chancellorsville, Virginia in early May 1863, when they had the aforementioned battle? He could have said, "Son, we live on Chancellorsville Street. Have I ever told you what happened in the Battle of Chancellorsville?" And I could have said, "No, Dad, you suck. You're always watching Lawrence Welk. You never tell me anything." And he could have smacked me.

Or, he could have told me that when the Battle of Chancellorsville was over, General Robert E. Lee was generally considered the winner, since he had got the higher score. And this would have taught me that the other side (we, my father and I, being Northerners) sometimes wins.

Or, he could have really bored me to tears. He could have told me that, actually, General Lee went into the battle with only about half as many men as his opponent General Hooker, so the higher casualties on Hooker's side in fact represented a smaller percentage of losses for his total forces, and he was thus left with the larger force at the end, so you could very well say that the Union side won after all, so there.

Or, my father could have said that it was exactly during the Battle of Chancellorsville that Stonewall Jackson was fatally shot. Who knows, but maybe that particular casualty by itself cost the Confederates the whole War.

Or, he could have said, go read about it in a book, I'm too busy watching Lawrence Welk to talk to you now.

In any case, I could have learned that winning and losing isn't always what it looks like. I could have learned that the Red Sox could lose that game in 1955 but might still have a chance to win the World Series in 2004, or 2005, or someday after I'm dead. I could have been prepared for the 2000 presidential election, when the guy with the best score lost.

So what is the moral of our story? The moral is, don't demand that street names have to be easy to spell. What do elm trees have to do with presidential elections and baseball games? Nothing. So leave the names of streets alone.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Tells of Indecision

Let's talk about the undecided!

There have already been a lot of people doing that. For example, just last Sunday, Andy Rooney, a TV commentator and veteran of the Hundred Years War, more or less came out and said that the people who haven't decided how to vote in the presidential election coming up are stupid.

That was very insensitive of Mr. Rooney, and we, of course, would never choose to emulate his politically incorrect example, however tempted we were.

Still, you've got to wonder, don't you? I mean, Bush and Kerry have each been around a while. They've been arguing with each other since Friends went off the air. The third party candidates have all declared their positions in detail. Some of them have run for president before. There's been nothing on TV but reruns and that Vanuatu junk, so there've been no distractions there. So what's it going to take to get the undecided to make up their minds? Do we have to buy them all beers and salted nuts?

Did you all notice how the audience at the Town Hall debate between Bush and Kerry included undecided would-be voters selected by the Gallup organization? I bet some of you imagined that to pick undecided voters you should just get a bunch of folks into a room, ask who all is decided, and then tell the ones who didn't raise their hands to get in the van. But if you think that's how it is done, that just shows how unscientific you are when it comes to undecidedness.

Actually spotting someone who is undecided about the 2004 presidential election requires great ingenuity, talent and professional experience. If you or I did it, we'd probably be still looking. But the Gallup guys got the job done right on time, and they probably only charged more than all the money I've ever seen in my life put together.

Just how do you find the undecided? Well, like finding the homeless, the gay, the vegetarian, the Scrabble enthusiast, the ambidextrous, or the Irish, it takes a keen eye and a deep familiarity with the culture of the target.

First, you must weed out unlikely subjects. You rule out anyone wearing a hat for instance. Anyone who can pick out a hat and commit to it for even a day can decide among this year's presidential candidates. It is no accident that there were so few hats in the audience of the Town Hall debate. The one guy with the beret just wandered in to bum cigarettes.

Do the socks match? Here's a dead give-away: right sock red, left sock blue. But other mismatches can also tell a woeful tale of indecision.

Pollsters regularly make use of vast archives of data from past surveys, which they share among themselves freely. So the Gallup people knew to contact the Pepsi people and obtain their extensive listings of people who couldn't complete the Pepsi Challenge. Gallup itself has amassed long lists of people who don't know if O.J. did it, or if Nixon should resign or not, or whether the Vietnam War was a good idea or not.

You know you might have someone who is undecided if they aren't sure whether we've been to the moon. Maybe we have, maybe it was a hoax, who knows? You might have an undecided person if they're waiting to choose between creationism and evolution for the final definitive study on the subject. Or they think there may be an answer nobody's thought of, perhaps dealing with can-openers.

When, looking for the undecided, you see someone who has a Pro-Life or Pro-Choice bumper sticker on their car, let them pass. You don't want to talk to the people who've made up their minds about stem-cell research, any of them would have no trouble deciding who to vote for. The people you want are folks who think maybe we shouldn't rush into this women's suffrage thing until we've looked at all sides of the issue.

They say there are still 5 million undecided voters for president in this country. Yikes.