Kidnappers, suicide bombers and turncoat clerics wreaking havoc on America's best-laid plans in Iraq: The view from the Unreal bunker shows only darkness and storms on the horizon. But at the Central West End headquarters of Optimist International, hope springs eternal. The St. Louis-based charity organization, perhaps best known for their excellent fish fries, barbecues and brotherhood, has just launched a Baghdad chapter of Optimist -- and not a moment too soon.
Optimist Baghdad was christened on March 31, with 29 people attending a meeting held in the compound that formerly housed head pessimist Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. Most attendees were allied Optimists helping to get the country's fledgling government up and running, reports chapter president Ben Krause. But three were Iraqis, and he's hoping they'll help turn insurgents' frowns upside down.
"The people who work here, including our interpreters, are optimistic," says Krause. "I was just at the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is out in town, and a lot of them are scientists and so on. Very optimistic. They are pushing forward, looking forward."
While he was at the ministry, Krause says, four explosions erupted outside. "Nobody jumped or left the room or anything," he marvels. "To me, that says a lot for the people."
In short, where Unreal sees rain, Krause sees potential. He hopes eventually to move club meetings outside the compound's walls into Baghdad proper, where future Iraqi Optimists will learn to recite the Optimist Creed, a promise to, among other things, "forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future. To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile. To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others. To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear and too happy to permit the presence of trouble."
For now, Krause says, "There's really no time to have fish fries. We're working fifteen-hour days, and we sleep, and we're all here to help a country get on the right track."
But they are sponsoring an essay contest, "What a Free Iraq Means to Me," and nudging prominent Iraqis to take a greater role. "The people I have in mind, I haven't quite convinced them yet," says Krause. "They're fairly prominent businesspeople, and I think I can talk them into it. I'm working on it. I think that I can."
Essay It Ain't So
In honor of yet another commemorative section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the River City's Only Daily is asking readers to submit 100-word essays describing what makes this town so speshal.
Like you, Unreal's first thought upon learning of the contest and reading the online instructions at www.stltoday.com/writing was: What a stupid idea.
Our second thought was: How can we help?
The answer: We'll encourage folks to enter! And to make it even easier, we'll write their essays for them! Just pick your favorite of the three exactly-100-word essays below and then, Mad Libs style, personalize it. When you're done, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or Richard Weiss, 900 North Tucker Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63101.
1.) St. Louis is my home. Though I've never lived here, coming in from [Chesterfield/Wentzville/Edwardsville] for Cardinals' games as a kid was a blast. I remember the first time I saw the Cards choke in the postseason, in [1985/1987/1996] -- I nearly spit up my [Bud Light/Bud Ice/ Bud Dry]! Years later, returning to the city as an adult [for Soulard Mardi Gras' drunken debauchery/for Ted Drewes' legendary frozen custard/because I took the wrong exit], my car was stolen. With time on my hands, I ate some [Lee's/Church's/ Popeyes] fried chicken and waited for the police to show up. [Larry Rice/Joyce Meyer/Brenda Warner] saw me on the street and took me to church, and now I'm saved.
2.) People who dis St. Louis because of its [rampant violent crime/poor air quality/lack of culture] are way off base. In fact, we have some of the nicest [chop suey joints/package liquor stores/escaped mental patients] in the nation. Also some of the best-looking [women/men/homosexuals] around. And some of the funniest people, such as [John Goodman/Dick Gregory/ John Ashcroft], hail from somewhere around here. We may not be as "cultured" as [the French/New Yorkers/Gary, Indianans], but that's because we're Show Me State residents and we expect you to show us [you're genuine/you're Christian/your tits] before we'll trust you. We may be overweight, but if you ate as much [toasted ravioli/thin-crust pizza/squirrel meat] as we do, you'd be full too!
3.) "What high school did you go to?" That is the St. Louis question. If you asked me, I'd say, "[I went to John Burroughs/I went to Country Day/None of your goddamn business!]" and then [take you out to J. Buck's for a beer/comment on your Izod shirt and fine pleated Dockers/slap you upside the head till you started bawling]. To me, there are more important questions, such as: "[Why can't we heal our racial divisions/ When will migration to the suburbs end/Where did you get your breasts augmented]?" If all we're concerned about is the superficial -- like what kind of [dress/juice/fire-Buddha] [Miss USA/Cornell Haynes/Bob Cassilly] is [wearing/pimping/smoking] -- we're never going to rise to the level of our intellectual forebears like [Howard Nemerov/Kate Chopin/Ike Turner]. Until that time, let's get back to doing what we do best: [eating way too much/drinking way too much/spreading sexually transmitted diseases].
Crash and Burn
Citing 155 American deaths, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week pulled dietary supplements containing ephedra or its synthetic derivative, ephedrine, from the shelves of every nutrition center, gas station and truck stop in the nation. Ephedra (also known as ma huang) has been used medicinally by the Chinese for thousands of years but more recently gained popularity here as an appetite suppressant, asthma reliever and athletic training aid. And oh yeah: You can stay awake for days on the stuff, provided your heart doesn't explode.
In the sparse downtime between jabbing safety pins at the weevils crawling under our scalp and screaming at the helicopters hovering outside the window of our cubicle, Unreal caught up with William Russell, a local chiropractor, licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist whose 1990 diplomatic residence at the Olympic Training Center in Beijing gave him access to some ancient Chinese secrets.
Unreal: I know it kills baseball players, but what's so bad about ephedra?
William Russell: Ephedra is a plant used in Chinese medicine as part of complex formulas for conditions that need an increase in energy levels as part of their treatment. Typically, there are one to three main ingredients in a Chinese formula, with a number of modifiers to direct the effects of the medicine to a specific energy meridian and to counteract unwanted side effects, such as potential liver damage. The way of administering the medications is traditionally through the use of teas or elixirs, not ingestion of the whole herb. This also affects the various compounds extracted from the herb.
Why can't the American medical establishment figure out how to make ephedra safe?
Chinese methods of treatment have been developed over hundreds of years of clinical observation. A new acupuncture point is one that has only been used for 500 years. In the West, we tend to find the effects of a single ingredient used in a Chinese formula and exploit that aspect of it with little knowledge or concern about possible negative long-term effects or any real knowledge about appropriate dosages or length of use.
The guy behind the counter at GNC told me that supplement manufacturers have come up with "safe" substitutes for ephedra. Wasn't ephedra a safe substitute for crystal meth?
A salesperson at the local nutrition store with no background at all may recommend products to you. And in the U.S. any licensed practitioner can prescribe for and treat conditions from the simplest to the most complex from the first day they open an office. In China practitioners of traditional medicine only treat conditions that are within their level of competence. It is generally acknowledged that it takes seven to eight years to begin to understand why you use a particular formula for a particular patient, and twice that long before you're competent enough to devise your own formulas. This goes against the American concept of instant expert. The final problem is that many of the herbal remedies sold don't have what they state that they have in them. One must always be on guard when profit is the motive behind the product. That doesn't mean there aren't good products put out by reputable people, but one must always be sure of the source.
What are the long-term effects of being terrorized by chicken ghosts?
I don't have an answer for that one.
The Luddite's Retort
Much like the Cardinals, with whom it shares an owner, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's sports section boasts no staff ace. Bernie Miklasz and Bryan Burwell are fine human beings and more than capable sportswriters, but what with tripling up on television and radio obligations, they're in no shape to hurl a complete sports-page game in these multimedia noughties. Which brings us to page 2's Dan O'Neill. With his throwback mustache and pedestrian grit, O'Neill is the P-D's Jeff Suppan. And just as the ex-Pirate is obligated to take the mound every fifth day with a fastball that rarely sees the speedy side of 90, O'Neill is called upon to trot out his "At-Large Column" every week or so.
On March 21, Dan-O took a knife to a sacred cow: Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, the penny-pinching, statistics-obsessed subject of Michael Lewis' best-selling Moneyball. Underneath the headline "Baseball Is Flesh and Blood, Not Numbers," O'Neill argues that Beane's much-ballyhooed number-crunching had nothing to do with landing the A's big-three starting rotation of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder. Instead, the columnist credits scouts, whose "memory is not measured in gigabytes, but in calluses, tobacco stains and stirrup socks."
Three days afterward baseball analyst Rob Neyer called O'Neill out in his ESPN.com column. Wrote Neyer, an unapologetic Beaneaologist who has tapped the A's to win the 2004 World Series: "What a lot of these addle-minded writers refuse to acknowledge is that some scouts don't know what they're doing. That shouldn't be hard to understand; there are incompetent scouts, just as there are incompetent doctors, incompetent tree-trimmers and -- yes, Dan -- incompetent columnists."
Miffed, O'Neill whipped out his trusty keyboard and fired back. "Can't tell you how disappointing it is to be considered 'incompetent' by one with such depth and integrity," he responded in a screed Neyer posted (without comment this time, on his personal Web site, www.robneyer.com). "I'm not sure what your motivations were for the vindictiveness, but I certainly am enjoying the e-mails from all the stat Nazis."
Unreal tracked down O'Neill at the Masters, which he was covering for the Post. "While I have known people like Jayson Stark and Peter Gammons for years -- people who I respect -- I have never met Rob Neyer, never come across him in a press box or clubhouse of any kind, in any sport," the sportswriter says, dropping the names of two heavyweight ESPN analysts. "Nor do I have any information to suggest that he is in any way related to Billy Beane. I found his column unfortunate and anti-Gaelic."