Setting The Bar

When our standards don't live up to our standards

And although the Pentagon may have become lax on the matter of desertion, it is a Torquemada on the matter of obesity. In fiscal year 2002 the Marine Corps discharged eighty-eight people because of an excessive percentage of body fat; the Air Force discharged 394, and the Army discharged 945. (The Navy did not discharge anyone for obesity—perhaps because in that service the extra buoyancy is actually an advantage.) The Russians, no doubt honoring some vestigial memory of superpower competition, have shown a similar resolve in the weight department. Last September the overseers of the Bolshoi Ballet dismissed the well-known ballerina Anastasia Volochkova on the grounds that "she is hard to lift."

In his book The Control of Nature, John McPhee described the dynamic of upthrust and erosion in the mountains of southern California. "The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth," he wrote, and then added, "Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world." Standards experience a similar dynamic.

The body dimensions of the original Barbie doll were such that if she were life size, the critical measurements would be 38-18-34. But in 1998 Mattel introduced a revised doll, Really Rad Barbie, whose unofficial extrapolated dimensions were 36-24-34—a modest step toward a different ideal. A box of Crayola crayons once held a single crayon whose shade was designated "flesh"—roughly the color of a piglet after a warm bath. Now Crayola markets a whole box devoted entirely to flesh tones: peach, mahogany, sepia, burnt sienna—the full Benetton spectrum.

Some standards aren't worthy of the name in the first place, and in any event standards will always be in flux. But surely there are a handful on which we might all agree to hold the line—this far and no further, unto the end of days. To start this long-overdue public conversation, I'll propose ten.

I. "EMPLOYEES MUST WASH HANDS BEFORE RETURNING TO WORK" ("Los empleados deben lavarse las manos antes de regresar al trabajo").

II. "Women and children first" (except maybe Ann Coulter).

III. Notoriety does not denote "famousness," enormity does not denote "bigness," and religiosity does not denote "religiousness."

IV. "The bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. The bat shall be one piece of solid wood."—official rules, Major League Baseball

V. "Honey, you look great!" (still the only correct answer).

VI. "Parents should never issue birth announcements or write letters of thanks that pretend to be coming directly from the baby."—Miss Manners

VII. "First, do no harm."—Hippocrates

VIII. The federal adulteration limits for cocoa powder ("75 or more insect fragments per 50 grams") and chocolate ("60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams").

IX. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."—the Golden Rule (worth a try?)

And finally,

X. Anything that does "little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat" deserves an award.

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Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. More

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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