Mastering the debate game

American political campaigns have devolved into a great, nationwide reality game show whose two-year seasons seem endless. The winner of the last presidential election was, in fact, the celebrity host and producer of a popular elimination reality game show.

Donald Trump knows how to play the game to win. Now you can, too!

The elimination phase has already started with the Democratic debates, which continue Thursday night. The first two were two-night free-for-alls. Now the field has been trimmed from 20 to 10. Seven men and three women will take the stage together for three hours on Sept. 12.

This is still too many people and too little time for any meaningful policy discussions, so watch for these rhetorical tricks to grab sound bites and stand out from the crowd.

Ad Feminam

A variation on the ad hominem personal attack, this suggests your opponent doesn’t have the necessary background because she is a woman.

Ad Hominem

Latin for “to the man,” this questions your opponent’s character rather than addressing the topic at hand.

And You’re Another

Related to ad hominem and name-calling attacks, this responds in kind instead of sticking to the subject.

Benchmarking

When comparing a condition over time, selecting the starting point, e.g. Did the economic resurgence start under Obama or Trump?

Big Lie

A trick popularized by Adolf Hitler. A lie told often enough and loudly enough is eventually accepted as fact.

Bigger Lie

Responding that your opponent is using the Big Lie, a trick used by the Nazis, thereby associating your opponent with the Nazis.

Changing the Subject

Answering a question about topic A with what you want to say about topic B. Frequently used in the early debates when candidates want to push certain parts of their agenda.

Cherry-Picking

Related to benchmarking, this is selecting data that supports your position while the complete picture may tell another story.

Dark History

Related to ad hominem, this brings up skeletons in the closet that may or may not be provable today.

False Choice

Arguing that there are only two possible outcomes when in fact there may be alternatives or a middle ground.

False Comparison

Best known as “comparing apples and oranges,” this also can apply to arguing that a certain outcome stemmed from an unrelated cause.

Guilt by Association

Arguing that because your opponent is a member of a party or group, that person supports everything that group does.

Misquotes and Quotes Out of Context

Paraphrasing or quoting your opponent in such a way as to make them mean something other than originally intended.

Name-calling

Giving your opponents unsavory labels and forcing them to defend against them.

Name Game

If you can successfully give something a name, you can control it. Used successfully in primaries for the 2016 election.

Oversimplification

National policy issues are complex. Coming up with a sound-bite solution (or summarizing your opponent’s solution) glosses over the details.

Pie-in-the-Sky

Candidates can promise anything, but to achieve it as law usually requires the cooperation of the White House and both houses of Congress.

Straw Man

Misrepresenting your opponent’s position on a topic and then knocking it down. Related to the Big Lie and Oversimplification, this puts the opponent on the defensive to explain the true meaning.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

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I’ve lost the ponytail.

This should come as a surprise to no one. I’ve been losing hair for years, if not decades. But to have a whole fistful of it disappear onto the floor at once? That’s drastic.

Friends and former co-workers who haven’t seen me for a couple of years may be surprised that I ever had one. It was a late-life (as opposed to mid-life) fling, an “I’m-going-to-retire-now-and-let-my-hair-down” decision. For all of my working life, I was a clean-cut kind of guy. Only when I saw a change coming did I go into Beach Boys mode.

Dutch Boy

Dutch Boy paint has been around for a long time, but his hair stayed baby blond. (Dutch Boy paint website.)

It wasn’t always like that. I wore it shoulder-length, Dutch Boy style, complete with natural yellow waves and curls, for years — about three years, to be exact. Then my father tired of hearing about his cute little girl. My mother took me down to Louis Barber Shop in Hackensack, N.J.  (Louis is gone now but his shop lives on!)

I went in looking like a miss and came out looking like a Marine.

My style went a little shaggy in college, too. I’d usually go for a term — about three months — without a haircut. The one barber in our small college town had scalped me badly in my freshman year and I never set foot in his shop again.

Bright yellow turned dirty-blond in elementary school, brown in high school, dark chestnut in adulthood and pewter as seniority crept in. (The first gray hairs came along when our daughter was born, although I’m sure it was a coincidence.) When a routine haircut revealed more scalp than style, I decided it was time to Do Something.

But what?

When in doubt, grow it out

My serious widow’s peak had been creeping higher on my scalp for years, even as the hair in back was pushing downward. It was as if my entire scalp was trying to retreat down my collar. I gave up trying to forestall the inevitable. Eventually I surrendered and let it grow out, figuring that anyone who stared at the sides and back of my head wasn’t looking at the front and top.

Apparently I was wrong.

When my wife and I walked into a trendy, upscale styling salon for women and men in Burlington, Vermont, a cluster of artists — that’s the term they use there — behind the receptionist suppressed smiles. They shared knowing glances as I tugged the tie out of the ‘tail. Soon one emerged from the back room and escorted me to her station. She listened carefully as I explained what I was trying to do.

She lathered my head with an Australian brand “wash” and conditioned it with the same “rinse” — that’s Aussie for shampoo and conditioner, respectively — and took me back to her chair. Then, after a few tentative snips, she paused.

An artistic dilemma

“I have another idea,” she said, and explained that when people see the hair pulled back over thinning hair and falling down to the shoulders, they know exactly what is going on. “Let me work with what you’ve got,” she said.

“You’re the artist,” I answered. Closing my eyes, I let her go to work on the canvas, or glob of clay, or hunk of granite that is my head.

A half-hour later, we were done, and I looked more like a businessman than a beach bum. “And if you don’t like it, or if you want something warmer on the back of your neck for winter, you could always grow it out again.”

Probably not, though. If I want something warmer for winter, I’ll take my Beach Boys moment in Florida.

The last hurrah of the ponytail.

Catching the breeze

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Writer-sailors get their pre-sail orientation. Instructor Kelly Hedglin Bowen is on the left. That’s me on the right.

I stopped in mid-sentence. “My writing is terrible,” I said, shaking my head and squinting at the page.

Sitting next to me in the Sonar, Alex nudged my leg and urged me to go on. You’re not supposed to say such things in a Gateless writing session. It was all about overcoming your inner editor, bringing yourself to put words to paper and share them, regardless of your self-censor and of what you think (or fear) others might say.

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That’s Alex, sitting aft, and me, forward, from the viewpoint of skipper Kelly Hedglin Bowen, who took the photo.

One of the things I learned in this session is that others might read a lot more meaning into your words than you intended. My inner editor realized only later that the problem here was a matter of poor word choice.

In this case, though, the words were true: My writing was terrible. My handwriting, my scrawl. I couldn’t read my own words, and this was a problem because the setting in a lively boat on a busy waterfront had inspired me to use different vocabulary and rhythms than I usually do. It was literally like reading a stranger’s words and penmanship.

But I pressed on despite that stranger and finished the piece. It wasn’t so bad after all. My fellow travelers said they liked it, anyway.

And so we continued, in turn, as we sailed across the lake and out toward Rock Dunder, thinking about origin stories and writing prompts and sharing.

Kelly Hedglin Bowen, a rare and probably unique combination of certified Gateless method trainer and sailing instructor, piloted the boat through the waters and its crew through their writing exercises, handling both with care and ease.

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And they’re off on a sailing-writing adventure! Photos by Barbara Hampton

She offers several Wind∼Word writing/sailing sessions each summer through the Community Sailing Center in Burlington, Vermont. More information, including dates, is available on its website.

For me, it was a perfect end of a summer that had seen no time on the water and little pushing a pencil. I hope that next season I’ll be under the canvas more often, but I think I’ll enjoy the moment more if I leave the paper-pushing ashore.

I was right. My writing penmanship is terrible. I’ll stick to the keyboards I’ve been using for some 40 years now.

Schrödinger’s kitty

I have just returned from a thought experiment.

Specifically, I heard a thump somewhere inside the house and went downstairs to the spare room to check it out.

Why downstairs? Why specifically the spare room? Because we have a house guest. We’re cat-sitting our daughter’s newly adopted kitten while she’s away for a few days for work and travel.

We can’t let the kitty have the run of the house. For one thing, it’s been a long time since we had a pet; the house is no longer cat-proofed. Second, I’m being treated for an allergy to cats; especially on a day when I’m having the shots, it’s important that I stay away from them.

All’s quiet in the spare room. Thus the curious thought experiment.

The cat’s out of the bag

I’m not the first to attempt such an experiment. Back in 1935, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger used one to reduce an interpretation of quantum mechanics to absurdity. According to that interpretation, subatomic objects do not have definite properties until they are observed and measured. Until that happens they can only be predicted using probability.

Schrödinger said that was like sealing a cat in a cylinder with a poison that would be released when an atom of radioactive substance decayed. Without knowing whether the trigger had been activated, it’s impossible to determine whether the cat is alive or dead, even using probability. Open the cylinder and observe the cat, and you have the answer. Until then, you don’t — although clearly the cat is either alive or dead. It can’t be both.

Hypothetical-animal cruelty issues aside, it’s clear that more than eight decades later, Schrödinger’s theoretical cat would be no spring kitty. Yet I suspect our guest kitten is a distant relation.

Is the cat alive or dead? Or less macabre: Is she sleeping or is she in trouble? If she’s sleeping, I don’t want to disturb her. If she’s in trouble, I want to rescue her.

To complicate matters, unlike the dead-or-alive scenario, there are other possibilities. She could be playing quietly. She could be waiting to pounce on me or to escape when I open the door. She could be about to get into trouble.

The only way to find out is to open the door.

…She was in her bed, but her head popped up when she heard the latch click. No kitty rescue required.

This time, anyway… 

In suspense…

Don’t look now, but I’ve been suspended.

That’s what the voice mail from the robocaller said.  The call came in with an in-state telephone number and Caller ID showing “Social Security Admin…” and the message was clear as day: “Your Social Security Number has been suspended because of suspicious activity. To restore it, press 1.”

220px-Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanWoe is me! What did I do? What do I do now? I wasn’t home to press 1 when the call came in.

For that last question, at least, we had our answer. The caller was persistent. We got at least six different chances over the next few days to press 1 and fix the problem, and we missed them all. They all ended up on voice mail.

Yet life goes on. How can this be? Could someone have made a mistake?

The Social Security Administration — the real Social Security Administration — does not suspend Social Security Numbers for suspicious activity. That’s not their job. And so they won’t call you.

Neither, for that matter, will the Internal Revenue Service, which is another agency people seem to get a lot of calls from. If the government has a question or problem, they’ll write to you at your established address on official stationery and give you a verifiable way to get back to them. You can also check back with any government agency through their contact numbers listed in the phone directory or the agency’s website.

Another giveaway: The robocall came in to a number that wasn’t listed, and it asked for no one by name. The robot at the other end of the line could not have known who would be picking up the phone.

What we have, then, is just the latest scam that’s been making the rounds nationwide, according to published reports. Ignore it. Don’t give any personal information away.(Presumably if you do press 1 you’ll be connected to a real person who tell you they need your name, number and other personal information so they can verify your case. Don’t give it.)

According to the real Social Security Administration, here’s what you need to know:

  • The SSA will never (ever) call and ask for your Social Security number. It won’t ask you to pay anything. And it won’t call to threaten your benefits.
  • Your caller ID might show the SSA’s real phone number (1-800-772-1213), but that’s not the real SSA calling. Computers make it easy to show any number on caller ID. You can’t trust what you see there.
  • Never give your Social Security number to anyone who contacts you. Don’t confirm the last 4 digits. And don’t give a bank account or credit card number – ever – to anybody who contacts you asking for it.
  • Remember that anyone who tells you to wire money, pay with a gift card, or send cash is a scammer. Always. No matter who they say they are.
  • If you’re worried about a call from someone who claims to be from the Social Security Administration, get off the phone. Then call the real SSA at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). If you’ve spotted a scam, then tell the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.

If you want your Social Security Number monitored for suspicious activity,  you can buy services that do that. We’ve had good experiences with LifeLock, which is another reason I was confident the phone call was a scam.

What a relief! I haven’t really been suspended, after all.

Sorry to keep you in suspense.