Dear Everyone,

Hello. Earth Ball here. For those of you who do not know me from my previous letters, I am a jumbo-size inflatable ball, also called a cage ball, currently residing in suburban Baltimore, where I am used by junior-high-school physical-education coaches to entertain students on bad-weather days.

The weather has been especially bad of late: cold and rainy, with a 100 percent chance of unpleasant. Ordinarily, bad weather would be good for me, but last week one of the equipment managers reorganized the locker room and, as a result, I am near a drafty window casing. And so the weather that is my bread and butter—maybe even my reason for being—now is a source of profound discomfort. I shiver, and I sniffle, and I worry.

My previous letters have been about the conservative radio-talk-show host Sean Hannity. This letter will be as well, though I may not be able to stay on point as much as I would like. When you are an Earth Ball, and you get a cold, it doesn’t simply clog up your head, because you’re pretty much all head. You get aches and pains all over. Your mood darkens. Your anxiety blooms. Your memory slackens. The damage to your peace of mind is comprehensive. You begin to believe that those who cross you, like that equipment manager who moved me closer to the window, are reprehensible manure eaters. Thank goodness for Paco.

Have I mentioned Paco? He is the one bright spot in this otherwise perverse new life of mine, where I fear bad weather and pray for sunshine. Paco is a football who used to be all the way across the room and was, as a result, a stranger, but who is now right next to me and is one of my best friends. Paco was made in Mexico, from “cowhide” (I think it’s actually dog), and he speaks in heavily accented English, which leads to grammatical mistakes that are so hilarious they might as well be intentional. He says he “is exhaust” when he means exhausted and that he “has a believe” when he means belief. I have a cold, so I’m not going to be able to remember other examples. But Paco is great. Plus, he’s a football, which makes him automatically cool.

During our evenings, Paco and I have taken to watching Sean Hannity’s television show, Hannity and Colmes, on the Fox News Channel. For a while, the show wasn’t on in the locker room—it was all Deal or No Deal, all the time—but Coach Parker is back, and more Coach Parker means more Hannity. Watching with Paco is an exercise in affectionate frustration. As I have said, I like Paco tremendously, but the two of us have very different opinions about the issues. For example, there was recently a segment on global warming. Now, I will concede that just because I am an Earth Ball does not mean that I have any real understanding of the Earth. Still, I am sensitive to the subject because I was manufactured in an industrial facility in China responsible for extremely high levels of pollution. Turning scrap plastic and leather into a handsome Earth Ball such as myself is not as easy as you might think. It takes sweat, tears, and deoxyribotoxyepoxy-6,3,8. I may have the name of the chemical wrong. At any rate, my complicity in the industrial process has led me to think more circumspectly about our environment, and to advocate measures for reducing America’s energy consumption. Paco disagrees. He thinks that we have not yet truly proven that human habits, including industrial production, affect climate change. “Hundreds of scientists agree that people have nothing to do with the slight increase in temperatures,” he said. “It’s the cycle of the planet. The scare tactics are just being used to control people politically.” In this he is simply parroting the views of many conservatives, including Sean Hannity. It is not his own believe. “Paco,” I said, “if accusing people of exploiting climate change for political gain is not exactly crazy, it is certainly hypocritical, in light of the way the Bush administration has used war on terror.” I didn’t say that. I always think of smart things to say after the fact. At the moment, all I said was, “Control people how?” and he said, “I don’t know, man, but it’s cold as hell in here,” and we both laughed, and got back to watching TV. We are friends and so we don’t let politics come between us. Later in the broadcast, there was a commercial on that had a father and son throwing a football, and Paco said it reminded him of when he could go outside and be thrown around. “I was a sailor through the air,” he said, and then he trailed off. I had a sudden pang of protectiveness for him, and generosity, and I wished the weather would get better so he could go outside.

Another example: A week or so ago, the conservative commentator Ann Coulter caused a stir when she joked to a crowd of young conservatives that she couldn’t talk about John Edwards, a Democratic nominee for president, because “you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot.’” Sean Hannity gave Coulter at least two days of time, on the radio and on television, to defend herself, and along the way he made a number of entertaining moves, if by entertaining I mean intellectually dishonest. First, he said that the Republican candidates who spoke at the same event as Coulter should not be judged by her words. True enough as arguments go, but is it true when it comes from the man who gleefully attacked Democrats for sitting on the same stage as Michael Moore, or for that matter went after Nancy Pelosi for participating in the same parade as NAMBLA member Harry Hey? In Earth Ball land, we call a person who talks from both sides of his mouth a “hypocrite.” Hannity also allowed Coulter to express how horrified she was at the suggestion by Hannity’s co-host Alan Colmes that the word “faggot” was potentially as inflammatory as the n-word. Coulter, suddenly a civil-rights activist, embarked upon an argument about the exceptionalism of anti-black racism. “African-Americans were brought here as slaves,” she said. “It’s not the same.” Hannity stood idly by, even though he has frequently argued that other kinds of insults are equally offensive. In one of the most amusing instances, he took the father of U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. to task for calling a white man a “cracker,” asking his audience why “cracker” wasn’t considered just as racist as the n-word. (As it turned out, Ford Sr. said “tracker,” and Hannity, to his slight credit, apologized.) Paco, who does not see skin color (I don’t mean this metaphorically, but literally—footballs can’t see skin color), didn’t really understand the Coulter controversy. “But I usually think that Sean is corrected,” he said.

“Are you sure you’re not making these mistakes on purpose?” I said. “You’re like the Bill Dana of footballs.”

“Whatever, Jumbo,” he said, and we both started laughing again.

Yesterday evening I was looking out the window and the weather was so beautiful I thought I was looking at a painting at first. When I realized it was the real outdoors, I was thrilled. “Paco,” I said, “you can go outside.” That’s exactly what happened, and it happened quick: the equipment manager came in and grabbed Paco for a night scrimmage with Bobby Lupino, the second-string quarterback, who might be starting this season because Rick Benson, the first-string quarterback, is rehabbing from a knee injury. I was devastated. Not by Rick Benson’s injury, though that’s not so great for Rick Benson or the rest of the Chargin’ Chargers. No, I mean that I was devastated by Paco’s departure. I was happy for him at first, but later that night I was sad for myself, because I had no one to watch Sean Hannity with me. And I needed someone. I needed a dose of spiritual connection in the face of the dispiritingly stupid argument that I heard that night, and that I am about to restate.

For a few weeks, Sean Hannity had been suggesting that there is something problematic about Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s affiliation with the Trinity United Church of Christ, a Chicago church that also counts among its members Oprah Winfrey. Hannity has implied, and sometimes almost stated, that the church’s black-oriented mission, as outlined on its website, is separatist and racist. I have seen these segments flash by here and there, but I never really focused on them until the night that Paco went out to the yard. There, alone, unbuffered by friends, I watched as Sean Hannity tore into the Trinity United Church of Christ. Hannity believes, or claims to believe, that the church’s use of racial language (the fact that the church devotes itself to promoting “black community,” “black family,” and so on) is inherently divisive. “If you substitute for the word ‘black’ the word ‘white,’” he has said, “there would be an outrage in this country.” Coming from the same man who let Ann Coulter make an unchallenged argument that the black experience in America is an exceptional one, this seemed kind of foolish. You can’t just substitute “white” for “black,” because the experiences are so wildly divergent. The night Paco left, Hannity had an African-American guest, the Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, and the two of them “debated” whether the Trinity United Church was racist, which basically amounted to a kind of rhetorical softball practice in which each man agreed with the other with decreasing analytical pressure. What was Hannity suggesting, exactly? That any community is inherently racist? What about a Greek Orthodox Church that by definition excludes members of other faiths? What about a temple in a Russian neighborhood that has as its members only Russian Jews? Is that temple somehow threatening to other Jews? Was Hannity actually arguing that ethnic identity on the part of black Americans was invalid? I felt dizzy. I looked around for Paco to ground me, but there was no Paco. There were only more questions. Wasn’t faith an extremely personal matter that was connected to notions of community? Didn’t all Americans have the right to worship with others like them? Didn’t all Americans have the right to worship however they wanted, in fact? Wasn’t that a powerful conservative belief? And if so, then why was that right somehow denied to the members of the Trinity United Church of Christ?

The segment, full of tar and feathers, put me in a horrible mood, and even now, remembering it, I find that I cannot shake that mood. I was going to tell a funny story about Paco and Bobby Lupino, and how Bobby Lupino always whispers encouragement to Paco before he throws him: he says things like “C’mon, boy” and “Make Bobby proud.” But Paco’s not back yet from the yard, and the weather’s nice enough that maybe he won’t come back today, either, and all of the funny stories seem less amusing to me now that I realize that all of us—Paco and Bobby and me included—have to be on the same planet as Sean Hannity. Maybe climate change will accelerate alarmingly and we will all be swept away into the ocean. I will float, but Sean Hannity will sink. I know that’s melodramatic, but it’s how I feel right now. Sorry. Maybe if I didn’t have a cold I would feel stronger.

Come back, Paco. Come back soon. Te extraño. Without you I feel exhaust.

Earth Ball