Sunday, November 23, 2014

EVEN THE LONE RANGER WAS A JERK

  The overwhelming majority of the talented people I've admired over the years have turned out to be deep down scumbags whom I discovered it was only possible to continue to idolize by separating the persons from the projects. This group of people includes one of the members of baseball's Big Red Machine, several filmmakers, an amazing basketball player, a few musicians, some significant intellectuals, a movie actor, and at least one famous painter. Unlike a surprising number of people (surprising to me, at any rate), my list does not include the star of a television situation comedy who added to his fame as a shill for Jello Pudding. Truth be told, I never watched an episode of "The Bill Cosby Show" when it aired the first time around. The previews gave me the feeling that the program existed to legitimize the economic policies of the current political administrations. Having watched a few installments in syndication, I stand by my original impression. The best demonstration of Cosby's talent, it seems to me, remains his involvement with "The Fat Albert Show" of the 1970s. It may have been a bit preachy, but it was a show by and of African-Americans that was funny in ways that "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times" never were. 
   Still, Cosby will never be on the same list as Pete Rose, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Michael Jordan, Miles Davis, John Lennon, Camille Paglia, Hannah Arendt, Pauline Kael, and Pablo Picasso, among others. I suffer no cognitive dissonance with these folks. For me there is what they accomplished professionally and for those accomplishments I hold not only respect but more than a little awe. I was going to say that when it comes to what they have done personally I do not care, however, I've always tried to be honest on these electronic pages, so I cannot say that. I hate it that Rose revealed himself to be not only baseball's all-time greatest hitter but also an apparent bigot and habitual gambler. I hate it that both Allen and Polanski could not find sufficient solace in being the two most important filmmakers of their generation and evidently needed to channel their demons through engaging youngsters in sexual activities. Miles Davis was not content to have recorded the most challenging improvisations of the post bop period; he found it additionally satisfying to slap women around, women who loved him unquestioningly. Groucho Marx, arguably the funniest man of all time, has been alleged to have been one of the world's worst parents. 
   You might say that my list indicates that I too am a scumbag and ought to reevaluate the things of true importance in life. In fact, I am constantly in a state of reevaluating that very thing. It might be more valuable and certainly more interesting to look at your own list of heroes. So let us get quite personal. Maybe your own parents would be on such a list of idols. That's good. I hope they are. I miss my own parents very much, despite the fact that both of them on occasion made remarks that still haunt my nightmares, so vile and racist were those statements. But what my parents--and probably yours as well--share with the more famous individuals on such a list is that they were complex and multi-dimensional human beings. To say that we are all flawed absolves no one of anything. But it does serve to remind us that even the Lone Ranger chronically referred to his closest ally and only friend as "stupid." 
   Maybe Bill Cosby really is the horrid serial rapist his accusers say he is. Marion Barry revealed himself to be less than a saint, yet he made a lot of us very proud to be Americans. Muhammad Ali was, to my mind, the greatest boxer who ever lived, despite the fact that for a few years he embraced a rather narrow-minded religion. 
   I'm not here to make the case that the biggest talent accompanies the biggest demons. I am here to say that those demons are inside each and every one of us and that given the ego immunity that fame often bestows, it would behoove us, while we remain outraged at the despicable side of our collective nature, to simultaneously remain in a condition of childlike wonder at the very fragile human beings who create the likes of Guernica, Kind of Blue, Cul de Sac, and Annie Hall. It might even be time in our intellectual evolution to inquire how it is that moral immunity permits disgusting and criminal behavior to pile up without response until the pot at last explodes just in time to tarnish the person's reputation after it is too late for any legal action to set things right. I'd like to continue with this jeremiad but I have to get back to making notes on Eichmann in Jerusalem

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

PRECISELY VAGUE

  The Philae landed on a comet known as 67P/Churymov–Gerasimenko last week. The exploratory transport device known as Rosetta will now proceed to orbit that comet as good old 67P arcs closer to the sun. So we all say a hearty thank you to the European Space Agency and attach a secret memorandum asking for the name of the store where the folks in the command center get their office chairs. This was a tremendous accomplishment for the space people and even though NASA had only a small involvement in this project, I felt a bit of envy, not only about getting one of those chairs for myself but more importantly that the U.S. space program didn't make the comet landing ahead of everyone else. Way back in July 1969, a whole lot of Americans found their collective posteriors on the lips of their chairs waiting to see if we would get a person walking on the moon ahead of the Russians. We did and every person I met that week carried a certain glow from that cosmic feat. Granted, most of the people I knew did not accompany Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on that moon journey (some claimed to have been stowaways, but I suspect they fibbed), yet we all sort of felt as if we had been there with the crew of astronauts. Getting the play-by-play from television newsmen Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid helped make the experience real. 
   Just as with many other people of a certain age, I jumped aboard the astronomy mania that held the world transfixed. In addition to talking my parents into buying me a "Moonscope,"
I also acquired a hefty batch of books and magazines that addressed themselves to all things cosmological. And while I am somewhat pained to admit it, one of my most treasured possessions was a foldout map of "outer space" that McDonald's gave away. It was actually a mighty fine map, showing as it did the rotation and revolution times for each of the planets and listing the distances of each planet from the others as well as from the sun. This accumulation of somewhat exploitive trivia delighted me and proved useful later in life when I was called on to recite various minutiae, such as the speed of light, the distance of a light year, the speed of the earth's rotation, the order of the planets, and so on.  
   Lest you think less than nice thoughts about me, rest assured I am no shill for McDonald's. Today I would not walk across the street to spit on Ronald the clown or even consider choking down one of his toadburgers. But when I was twelve, my financial resources and culinary expertise were appropriate to my age and I did what I could. 
   The whole country was on fire with excitement about Apollo 11, the first space trip that would land people on the moon. Neil Armstrong hopped down on the surface on July 20, 1969, and the nation and world watched. If I make it sound like a rerun of "Little House on the Prairie," well, that's kind of the way it was. Cronkite could have said, "Tonight, we are all Little Joe Cartwright" and no one would have contradicted him. 
   If you were a kid or even a young adult in the United States in 1969, you sort of felt good about yourself and your prospects for the future. Sure, there was that pesky war going on in Southeast Asia, but that didn't reflect your personal aspirations, even if you yourself were over there. You still figured that, once it was all over, things would get back to normal and as an American you were assured of a respectable future. 
   The thing about expectations is: sometimes they are wrong. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have high hopes. It does mean that the trade off for being collectively optimistic is that we may experience the occasional disappointment. 
   You know what we manufacture in the United States nowadays? Crayola crayons. Stihl chain saws. Hospital bedpans. I'm tempted to buy a bedpan, color it blue and saw the bastard in half, just out of spite. 
   Sure, I know, we still make some automobiles. We still make washers and dryers (Whirlpool reduced their Chinese operation and relocated back to the U.S. a few years ago). Electrolux plans to close their Quebeck operation and relocate to Memphis. General Electric recently brought 800 jobs back to the United States from Mexico. KitchenAid's hand mixers are now back home. master Lock ditched China for America. And there's a lot of other companies doing the same. But mostly what we do here is service. And service is intangible. Service is a pick-up at the airport. Service is an express check-in at the hotel. Service is not getting spat on at the restaurant. And I don't know when was the last time you rode a plane, went to a hotel, or ate at a restaurant, but chances are that unless you paid a lot for the privilege, your service was lousy. 
   A couple years ago, Zogby Analytics and MSN partnered on a survey to determine the ten best companies regarding "customer service." They were without exception stores such as Trader Joe's and Lowes, meaning stores that sell other companies' products. No friggin' McDonald's on that list, buddy. 
   What I suspect all of this means is that choices are similar to definitions. When you have too many of them, they cease to mean anything at all. Think of any word you use throughout the day. The more different meanings that word has to various people, the less precision the word possesses. The same applies to our options. When we had only four television networks, the meaning of any one channel was far more clear and cogent. With thousands of channels available, the very idea of "watching" television is blurry. Do you mean watching it on a tradition TV set, or from a desktop or laptop computer, and iPhone, a smart phone, a bunch of shadow images on the wall, cable, satellite, Netflix, or what? The only answer is that we become more precise in our use of words, but that ends up cluttering up our minds with details about consumable goods rather than things of actual value, things such as traveling to Mars, or getting the mercury out of our goldfish, or voting one way or another on immigration reform, or whatever the real situation might be. But it can be hard to think of those important ideas or to even find two people to agree that they are important when our brains have been nullified by the planned intellectual obsolescence of this here madly spinning orb. Information all too often gets confused with knowledge and the skills to survive frequently get substituted for street smarts. Perhaps a good place to begin challenging our preconceived misconceptions is when we sit outside tonight and look out into that divine black silk blanket spread across our universe, maybe we can take a moment or two to reflect on our collective connections, meaning that while you and I may interpret the universe differently, it's nice to remember that that very difference is something we share. We're all gently shivering beneath the same comforter. The simple act of sitting alone on a chilly night and grooving to the beauty of those fractured lights--it brings us together a lot like the way the Apollo missions brought us together. Only this time we won't need television or hand gadgets or anything except the vital muscle known as imagination. I'll be out tonight. Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

WELCOME TO JANUARY 1933

   Assuming for the sake of discussion that I acknowledge a substantial distinction between the two major political parties in the United States, several good reasons exist why in November 2014 one of them fared far worse than the other.
   Let's get some of the "inherent in the system" reasons out of the way first. Voter suppression had a lot to do with it, as Kay Hagan would admit if she were not also part of the problem, as we shall see momentarily.
   While a pattern of six year blues exists for the party of most re-elected presidents, in this particular case I'm going to go out on a steady limb and suggest that one of the common denominators for the GOP's advertising dollars was that they came packed with a share of racism. For the most part, the rural areas of America voted Republican this year, feeling the perks of the "recovery" less well than their urban counterparts. All the upwardly mobile economic indicators spoke well for the Democrats: stock market high, unemployment low. But no one outside the upper echelons of this country have experienced prosperity since Nixon's first term, so while one party may get punished for things getting worse, no party will get rewarded for things getting better simply because better no longer exists. And in that twenty percent of this country that remains rural, the appearance of a choice was clear.
   Ah, there's the rub. Things no longer improve for the majority. Unless your family income is at or above $100,000 a year, you most likely have no more in savings (relative to earnings) today than your parents did a generation ago. Probably you have less. What you do have that your parents did not is debt. That gray cloud of financial weight sags over your shoulders heavier than anything your ancestors ever knew. People only like debt when its federal. No one enjoys the personal variety.
   But let's put aside the very real impact of poll taxes, a racism that is so pervasive that most of us cannot even recognize it, and diminishing expectations. The real reason why Barack von Hindenburg turned the keys to the chancellery over to the NSDAP is because his party has proved itself uncoordinated, unworthy, assimilationist and stupid. I'll give the reader credit for being able to parse the reasons behind the first three reasons and specifically address myself to Democratic stupidity. 
   You never tout your accomplishments, even on those rare occasions when you have any.
   You are sissies. You could have at least tried to get a single-payer healthcare system. Instead, you opted for this market-based nonsense that puts far too much control for its success with the states. You could have captured live a couple members of ISIS and dragged them through the streets on five prong fish hooks. You could have at least proposed that the NRA be forcibly disbanded because it represents a threat to national security. 
   You lack any genuine sense of humor. Anyone else would have laughed out loud if one of the leading nonrenewable energy spokesmen had uttered the term "clean coal," but you simply decided to study the matter. When he screws up publicly, a man of true wit will repeat the mistake over and over as a means of laughing at himself. Most people do not like Sarah Palin, but those who do like her would kill for her because she's funny and knows it. If she says on Monday that Minnesota is the capital of the country of Africa, she'll get bashed in the press and then compound the mistake on Wednesday by claiming that the city of Africa needs to invade its nearest neighbor--the continent of Iceland. People will laugh and her staff will laugh and she'll pretend to be confused. But people enjoy laughing. They'll vote for someone who makes them laugh before someone who puts food on their plate. 
   You have to involve the religious community. Granted, many of these people are nuts, but these nuts always vote both early and often. Go to church, enlist church leaders in progressive causes, and make sure this gets positive reporting. 
   Never blame the other guy for his own shortcomings. This is politics, people, and politics means the appearance of accountability. If Bush wrecked the economy, rather than saying it's hard to undo all the damage, say instead that you wish you had been elected four years earlier so that all the great things you've done would have happened just that much sooner.
   Pick a side in the Jewish-Palestinian conflict and stick with it. This will be easy. Go with Israel. True, you may alienate Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, but here's a news flash: They already feel alienated. You'll still need to kiss Saudi Arabia's ass for a few more years, but maybe you can trick Iraq into invading them and sell guns to both sides so both sides'll wipe out each other and the Israelis will have more room for growth. I know these comments will anger some friends of mine but I'm tired of Islam, kind of in the way that fatass Chris Christie is tired of the minimum wage, except I'm correct and he's a disgusting pig boy. Most religions have their share of idiots. Islam went back for thirds. 
   Support the environment.
   Raise the minimum wage.
   Enforce the rights granted in Roe v. Wade.
   Don't worry too much about gun control, even though you probably should.
   Keep going to church.
   If a woman becomes president, I would expect her to not alter her voice so as to sound like a man. As a black person, you are expected to sound like one and drop the white affectations. We knew you were black when we voted for you. That may even have been the primary reason I voted for you. If I'd wanted white, I'd have stayed with the Clintons.
  That's it. You have less than two years to get it together. I'll expect a full report.

   

Thursday, October 23, 2014

WHY I STILL CURSE DESPITE DISAPPROVING OF IT IN OTHERS

   If you were to stir together in some vile smelling cauldron the red-eyed terror of the northern goshawk, the ferocious backlash of the gray Russian lupine, and the single-minded hatred in the soul of the supreme bull shark, you might come within a wide fraction of approximating the conflux of ugly emotions boiling just beneath my heart yesterday afternoon, the stench from which I offer, rest assured, no apology whatsoever.
  I do not get around as much as I once did. On those occasions when I do poke my head out the door to engage some poor schleb in what passes these days for conversation, I often as not regret the decision. Still, now and then my mind harkens back to the days of my childhood, to the days when old people made a point of lying through their rotten green teeth to convince me that all men are good and angels get their wings and every Scrooge can be redeemed. I shake off that nonsense only to have those memories replaced with equal amounts of wino puke from the nihilistic influences of my twenties, back when I believed that just about any antisocial form of behavior had some merit and that life was garbage so let's all eat a big fistful. That was every bit as stupid as the Pollyanna posturing that naturally preceded it. 
   Wow. My stomach actually throbs from the anger I'm feeling right now as I recreate the repulsive experience I witnessed and played a small part of yesterday. I better skip ahead or I'll bleed an ulcer all over the keyboard and we'll never get the problem solved.
   Yesterday I accompanied a friend in a scheduled visit to a family physician. 
   That statement of fact may not sound like the type of event to warrant such a spewing of vitriol, but hang in there, people and children, because I'm about to scratch a nerve of familiarity right on the base of your spine.
   We walked inside the humble medical office, relieved to be out of the glare of the Phoenix afternoon sun, only to be greeted by the shrill wail of the opening theme cluster of that abomination that it pains me mightily to call "The Jerry Springer Show." The TV set blared the broadcast of insolence from atop a watercooler parked right next to the receptionist's desk, where it could do the most harm to the largest number. 
   This was my friend's first visit to this particular physician's office and quite foolishly I had recommended that we arrive early to fill out the reams of paperwork. The formalities in fact did await us on paper that appeared to have been created by a 1957 mimeograph prototype. My friend filled in the blanks as the studio audience watched a black chick announce to the crowd that she was a lesbian. The crowd bellowed their approval. I handed the receptionist the paperwork back on the clipboard while the lesbian shared with all concerned that her ex-girlfriend worked as a stripper. The crowd thought that was pretty fucking terrific. Jerry Springer suggested that maybe the world would like to meet the ex. The crowd chanted the host's name over and over. And that is when I went berserk.
   I turned to see that against one wall was a family of Mexican-Americans, their mouths a-drool over the prospects of what the television wrought. I marched over to the youngest of the bunch, kneeled down to about eye-level and said, "Is this the reason your people crawled through the goddamn Sonoran desert on their bellies, with aching throats and gritty eyes? To sit in this office and watch this fucking shit?!?" 
  The kid's father leaned forward, appearing somewhat alarmed. I pushed him back in his chair and carried on. "You should really be ashamed, pop! This is no way for the kids to learn the language. You think that knowing how to shout Jerree! Jerree! Jerree! is gonna help them get a good job? Holy Mother of Guadalupe, dude! This is their fucking lives, pal! And you sit here lapping up this disease like a cat licking milk off a porch step? Christ!"
   Sensing the possibility that what I actually needed to do was to assault the source, I turned back around and grabbed the TV set in both hands. And I shook it. I shook it hard. Nothing fell out. The Nazi chant of Jerree Jerree Jerree continued unabated. So I did what a man of my means would/could only do. I smashed that purveyor of pablum against the wall and laughed like a bit of a maniac as the shattered fragments fell to the floor in a kind of celestial slow motion, like snow flakes on your dead uncle's gravesite. I kicked the broken shards as the security guys arrived. I spat on the broken screen as my friend looked in fright as they carried me from the room. I swore I'd return as they rammed me head first through the door and dumped me into the parking lot.
   It is only sporting to admit at this point in the narrative that none of the things I described following the word "berserk" actually happened. Oh, I would have been filled with a beatific inner glow had things proceeded in such a classic Billy Jack manner (When confronted with about twenty white supremacists, Billy finds himself facing the leader of the town bullies and says, "You know what I'm going to do, just for the hell of it? I'm gonna take this right foot and whop you on this side of your head. And you know what? There's not gonna be a damned thing you're gonna be able to do about it." Quite clearly, this is how life is supposed to be lived and the fact that I have never really had what I consider to be my prime Billy Jack moment weighs heavy on my heart). What I did instead was to ask the receptionist if I could borrow the remote, all the better to turn down the volume. She told me she didn't know where it was. And like a fool I let that slide. I was confronted by a room full of all the imbecilic things I most resent and I backed down. God damn. I deserve the shame I feel. 
   I believe this is why some people die. They die because they forget there are no second chances. We do not get do-overs in life. I let a big one slip yesterday. I've wallowed in that shame and regret all day today. I have hammered into my head the admonition that I do not want to die and that the best way to fight against mortality is to free that part of oneself that bursts from inside your chest to announce to the rest of humanity words to the effect of "God damn you all to hell! MY life has meaning! My life has value! And I'm sick as fuck of you feeding me this horseshit when what I want is substance!"
   This kind of outrage does not excuse some twisted religious headjob who runs at cops with a hatchet. It does not permit impassioned hypocrites with airplanes to make wannabe martyrs of themselves at the expense of others. It does not make right the inexplicable pain of a young woman who steps off the top of a building into oblivion for no other purpose than to make the evening news. It does not excuse, or permit, or make right any of those things. It does, however, go a long way toward explaining them. 
   So when you and I sit around the box and the newscaster says that some wackadoo with an AR-15 blew away ten people and I say something poignant like "Probably half of them had it coming," please do not encourage that type of hermit talk. Just know that somewhere between my frustration and yours lies a keg filled with black powder with a short fuse attached. I don't know what's in that keg. Probably just smoke. But let's not find out, okay? Let's instead reinvent ourselves just a little bit more every day so that the world we inhabit does not need some deranged hero to kick ass and we can leave that kind of thing for the movies. Much better for society if we get our thrills vicariously. We wouldn't want to end up like that kid in the old rap song. "Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge. I'm tryin' not to lose my head."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

THE BUREAU OF REDUNDANCY BUREAU

   American use of the term "czar" to describe the point person on politico-social issues began on February 4, 1974. Rarely can we be so precise in tracing the etymology of a word coining. It was on that day that comic strip auteur Gary Trudeau referred to the appointment by Richard Nixon of William Simon as "Energy Czar." Let me make this perfectly clear. A cartoonist--and a damned funny one--birthed an expression that we still use to this day. The only difference between then and now is that many people today erroneously believe the word is of recent origin.
   The issue comes up, of course, because of the appointment of Ron Klain to the role of coordinator of the Obama Administration's efforts to control the infectious disease known as ebola. Perhaps you have heard of it. Klain's role will be to advise and serve as the central coordinating body, reporting to the President (rather than to Congress), who in turn, it is presumed, will be responsible to the people of the United States. It's simple crisis management. Every CEO needs an extra layer of bureaucracy between himself and the populace, even when that layer has no authority whatsoever. 
   But we in this country succeed like the winners we are when it comes to ignoring facts when a good scare is what we really want. Consider The Hill, a Washington-based journal of reaction:
Some presidents, including Barack Obama, have created czars without statutory authority backing those positions. The lack of statutory grounding means that czars exercise authority vested in other officials, which creates legal and extra-legal complications. Not to mention the absence of accountability czars have to Congress or the public because they are presidential creations and not confirmed by the Senate. Presidents have anointed czars as presidential “advisers”, thus attempting to shield these officials from testifying on the Hill, even while some of them have exercised substantial policy, spending, and regulatory powers.

   That's a point, I suppose. It's also a point that no U.S. voter elected any person who ever served in the Central Intelligence Agency (with the exception of George H.W. Bush) and yet that unelected organization did not resist the temptation to both create and implement executive strategy while we as an alleged electorate still turn out in strange droves to vote in more people who beyond all doubt will continue to do what American politicians have always done: either more or less than we should let them get away with. 
   But what about the charge that the czar (or czarina, one gathers) presents an extra layer of bureaucracy? Is that a bad thing? 
   Some level of what we call bureaucracy is essential to the functioning of any social organization comprised of three or more people. The decisive factor turns on whether the bureaucracy serves the consumers of the services or whether it serves to insulate and protect the person above the bureaucracy from the people beneath it. Let's look at a common example of a simple bureaucracy. A man loses his credit card and wishes to prevent unauthorized charges from taking place. He locates the telephone number of the card issuer. He enters a telephonic contingency maze. He is immediately met with the information that the bureaucracy has changed recently and to please listen carefully, as the call may be recorded. If the man prefers to communicate in English, he must press 1. Once this is accomplished, he hears that if he wishes to activate his missing credit card, he should press 1 again. This does not apply to him, so he continues to listen. If his card has been stolen, he is to press 2. This alert concerns him because, while the card is definitely out of his possession, he has no reason to believe someone stole it. His finger hovers over the 2 button, but his indecision allows the next message to play. If his card has been lost or destroyed, he should press 3. Sighing in relief that he exercised proper patience, he presses 3. After an ominous delay, a similar electronic voice demands that in the event that his card was destroyed, please press 1. If his card was lost, he should press 2. He presses 2. If he knows his card number, the recording advises, press 1. If he does not know his card number, he must press 2. Having committed the number to memory, along with other strange minutiae, he presses 1 and is then prompted to enter the card number followed by the pound sign. If he does not know what a pound sign is, he should press the hashtag key. If he does not know what that is, he must press the little tic tac toe button. Recognizing the sarcasm of the recording, he presses the appropriate button and receives the information that his card has been invalidated and that a new card with a new number will arrive in his mailbox with two weeks. He is further admonished to hang up because the bureaucracy has completed its task and to please have a very nice day.
   However impersonable this approach may feel, one must admit it is efficient for both the consumer and the credit card organization. That is because both parties stayed with the script. No one ad libbed and no one required something that the other party was unprepared to produce.
    Now let us consider a bureaucratic encounter where someone makes the decision to deviate from the script. It should be noted from the outset that this deviation may be reasonable or unreasonable, the value judgment typically being the purview of the people protected by the bureaucracy.
   I was standing in line at a Wells Fargo bank. I had business that I wished to transact with a teller. Any teller would do, I reckoned, and so I went in the general line. This felt appropriate since the different tellers did not appear to have their own independent lines of access. When my turn came, I approached a teller who sat placidly behind a sign that said BRENDA. I greeted her with a smile and said that I wished to cash a check drawn on the Wells Fargo bank. I had already made one mistake, as you no doubt realize. The account on which the funds were to be drawn belonged to the account holder. Wells Fargo was simply the bureaucratic layer between me and that man's money.
   BRENDA looked at the check with the level of interest a biology teacher brings to doing the ten thousandth autopsy on the ten thousandth dead frog for the ten thousandth time. "You have an account with Wells Fargo."
   While the words BRENDA spoke did not quite properly form a question, as you will no doubt observe by the punctuation indicator, I was familiar with this particular bureaucracy and in fact had been expecting it. I informed her that I was not. No, definitely not. Not indeed. Not at all. Never had been. Never would be. No, ma'am. Not I. Not me. Not this man. Heck no.
   BRENDA then said that she would appreciate it if I would show her two forms of photographic identification. Actually, what she said was, "I'll need two picture IDs, sir." I do not suppose that the reader will need me to mention that BRENDA leaned heavily on that last word, almost as if she were grinding it into the center of a deserted highway in an attempt to inflict agony onto the ancient concrete.
    I presented BRENDA with my valid driver's license. 
   She glanced at my license. Tossing it on top of the check I had also presented her, she responded that she need two picture IDs. 
   I admitted I had only the one. Were there any exceptions to the Two-Picture rule?
   There were, she admitted, moving into the contingency portion of her mental script. If I were a Wells Fargo account holder myself, for instance, then I could cash this very same check by presenting more than zero and less than two photographic identifications. 
   Oh! I said with naive optimism. And how many photo ID's would be required of me to secure the honor of becoming a Wells Fargo account holder? 
  Just one photo and one other form of ID, she replied, the latter not needing to have my pretty picture on it. 
   I explained that if one photo ID was good enough to get an account which would only require one photo ID to cash a check, we could skip the step of opening an account for me and move directly into the process of cashing the check. I further explained that since my own identification was clearly not the true issue at play, it might be assumed that the friendly Wells Fargo people were trying to coerce account "membership" by making the process of cashing a check arduous unless such a bonding had been formed. 
   She was not persuaded. I told her I wanted to speak to her manager. She invited me to have a seat while the manager was located. I told her I was going to stay right where I was so as to coerce the haste of the bank manager coming to my assistance. "Are you refusing to move? asked BRENDA.
   "I am refusing to move," I said.
   The manager came. She cashed the check. I mucked with the bureaucracy and lived to fight another day. 
    If the customer can therefore be successful when he or she improvises against the betterment of the bureaucracy, what happens, then, when the bureaucracy deviates from the script? 
   The actual result is often what you and I mean when we speak of "customer service." Here is a common example from everyday life. A woman walks into a Wal-Mart carrying a vacuum cleaner that she purchased there. The machine works just fine, as far as she knows. Her issue is that the same day she bought this very vacuum, her girlfriend bought one too and they only need the one. The women flipped a coin and our customer lost. She walks into the store pushing the machine. The "greeter" does not see her. Had the greeter observed her, he would likely have asked to see the woman's receipt, upon which he would have marked some written coding. This did not happen. This particular woman did not save her receipt anyway, so it doesn't actually matter. She waits in line at the area of the store called CUSTOMER SERVICE, a sign that implies this is the only place in the block store that provides the stuff. The clerk calls the woman and she wheels the vacuum over to the desk. "No receipt? You don't have no receipt? Oh, I don't think we can help you without a receipt. Edna, can we help this woman? She got no receipt? Huh? No? No, I'm sorry, lady, but you got no receipt so we cannot help you today. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
   Another employee steps out of the restroom just in time to recognize the customer. The restroom person works as a cashier and is was she who rang up the purchase. The customer also recognizes the cashier and without a word being exchanged between the two, the cashier whispers something to the customer service person. The service individual smiles as the cashier walks around the desk and wheels the vacuum back behind the counter. The service person rings up some numbers, opens the cash drawer and counts out the money to the customer. Yay! Satisfaction is mine, sayeth the Lord!
   It is tempting to believe that there used to be a time in this country when customer service of this sort was widespread. That belief is mostly the result of selective nostalgia. We have always required a number of deviants in our social organizations, deviants who have retained in their memories and who display in their practices that they recall the stated purpose of the bureaucracy: to provide efficient service. Sometimes we call these people whistleblowers. Sometimes we say they are gadflies. I always consider them as the only thinking people in the organization. That guy with the funny haircut leaning against the wall paging through a comic book. That girl with the strange tattoo, eyeglasses and a ponytail. That old man with the illegal smile. That crazy lady talking to herself on aisle seven. Our future, I hope, lies with those weirdos rather than with the automatons, the conformists and the nihilists. 

     

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THREE INSPIRATIONS AND NO GARNISHES

   The most interesting conversations sometimes wind their way across the tropes of human consciousness, landing at last--if ever--far from where the conversants might have earlier anticipated. 
   As those of you who write for a living recognize for yourselves, making a decent livelihood in this business does not happen for everyone who works at it. Some of you will go for a long time, batting the literary ball out of the stadium at every swing, only to find that the great cosmic umpire drags out his hideous blue pencil and undermines the project you approached with more confidence than all the others--and usually just at the precise moment when you could least endure the rejection. Yet you quite properly take solace in your successes. Some of you will no doubt wonder what it feels like to receive a royalty check, or an advance against future royalties. (Answer: It feels fantastic.) But I'd bet that most of the writers reading this will land somewhere in between, batting (to continue the metaphor, what with World Series fever in the air) approximately .333 in a good season. As a result of this Louisville Slugger Median, you may find it necessary, or at least helpful, to secure simultaneous employment in a capacity other than your preferred and chosen field as Scribe to the Great and Gloriously Unwashed Masses. 
   It is in that latter condition that I may like as not be reached most days. By most days I mean a day such as today. This very day in which we labor, friends and neighbor. (I hope you'll pardon that unfortunate rhyme. It was more or less accidental, although not without purpose. You see, I was making a sales call this afternoon when I found myself speaking in rhyme, inadvertently wowing the potential client, himself something of a salesperson, indeed, a far better one than am I.)
   Wait, wait, wait. Did I just let loose with a parenthetical admission to being in sales? 
   I did. Granted, that is not a complete job description. To salvage what is left of my diminishing hubris, I should share with you that my partner  (the long suffering roommate, Lisa Ann) and I make websites. The damned things won't jump up and sell themselves, now will they? Most assuredly not. So we have to beat the bushes and grab the tiger tails, shake, shimmy, do the pony like bony maronie and roll on our back 'cause we like it like that, just to get people to shut up long enough to pretend to consider listening to all the millions of reasons why he or she or they should do us the honor of allowing us to build him, her or them a website. 
   In any event, I was speaking to a very rapt listener, a polite and conscientious fellow named Paul. At the outset, he inquired after my health and general condition, to which I replied (as I so often do), "Sitting on a rainbow." The reason I use this response with such regularity is that (a) I have come to think of it as my own personal little conversational monogram, and (b) the sad truth is often far from what one might expect from someone saying "sitting on a rainbow," and so my secret hope is that people will intuit the irony and do me a favor by cheering me up. I am routinely disappointed in the reaction. And yet--
   This man Paul admitted that he could not recall receiving that response any time recently. I reminded him of the old Frank Sinatra song from which that line had come and he laughed as did I and the conversation was off and trotting. Within a very few minutes, I became self-conscious of the fact that I was answering all his many questions as if I were composing verse on the spot. Of course, now that I mention this, I can't remember even a solitary example to prove the point, but why would I make it up? Please just take my word, thunderbird, that the rhymes I uttered were bread and buttered far superior to the ones contained within this refrain. 
   As a result of my sudden lapse into rhythm and rhyme, Paul grew ever more intrigued and invited me to send him an invoice, one which he may respond to favorably at his leisure. This is an individual from whom I did not expect so much as the courtesy of name recognition. Yet, to be fair to him, he recognized my phone number or has saved it by my name. Either way, my previous contacts with him apparently failed to alienate him. To be even more fair, I found Paul to be quite the charming fellow and told him as much. This sort of candor and gushing is, I guarantee you, not my typical approach. But something about him brought out a cleverness in me. I feel confident that this is what people mean when they talk about inspiration. 
   Much later in the day, I encountered from within myself a far different and more unsavory type of inspiration. I will try to be kind on my description of the behavior of the pusillanimous pederast whose guile and treachery were matched only by the crookedness of her wretched soul. This fiend, whose name I will not speak, called my number and when I answered "Thank you for calling ROI, this is Phil, how may I help you," snarled into the phone (like the prehistoric reptilian gila monster that she spiritually resembles) with the tongue-twitching hiss, "Who is this?"
   I smiled and repeated my greeting. She inhaled through her mouth (a crevice which I suspect is framed by dental stalactites and stalagmites aplenty) and hissed, "What is this charge doing on my credit card?!?"
    The shrill shrew had forgotten ordering the website, had indeed forgotten that we had completed the website in record time and received high praise from her thirty days earlier, just as she had forgotten that we had taken pity on her abominable soul and had allowed her to make payment arrangements with us so that she could benefit from having a website which she--at the outset, at least--had not yet made complete compensation for, if you'll pardon my ending a clause with a preposition. She had forgotten many things in this interim, civility and propriety among those items and her unabashed shamelessness in the magnitude of her harsh and rude behavior took me somewhat aback. I stammered for a moment and handed the phone to Lisa Ann.
   One does well to watch the P's, Q's and other elements of style when dealing with Lisa Ann. But this rancid pterodactyl (capable of changing genus as well as species in a single paragraph) on our phone was not to be consoled. She breathed a fiery hatred with every frigid heartbeat and soon Lisa simply looked at me with a look that said, "Will you please bring me a glass of apple cider so that I may drown this wench in something bitter?" 
    I grabbed the phone, listened to this amoeba-brained degenerate (still changing lifeforms with each instant) and at last shouted, "Look, chicken head! The last psycho who threatened me woke up with his ankles welded together, so watch your mouth, toots!" 
   I ended up giving back half her money. 
   But I was and remain moderately pleased with my exhortation, just as I am self-satisfied with my earlier and much more humane conversation with that Paul fellow. Both were the result of what I call inspiration--this emotional spike of lightning that shoots through you, leaving you, at least for a little while, smarter and more clever than when you began.
    The final round of this kind of inspiration happened just a few minutes after my encounter with the aforementioned seven-headed triple uvula'd toad woman. I was just walking out of the convenience store with a soda and some hyper-processed snacks, when a guy about my own age smiled a painful and tired smile at me and asked if I could help him out. Coming right on the heels of the previous quarrel, my emotional wiring was not predisposed to be receptive to panhandling. Yet there was something in that man's eyes--something I probably imagined, but even a mirage is based on some interpretation of reality--that cut through all the layers of scales and hatred I'd amassed over the lifetime/two hours/whatever and I found myself asking this man to talk to me about himself. He may have thought I was nuts and he may have been correct. Doesn't matter. We stood there outside that store, sharing stupid experiences and laughing--not some kind of calculated emotional maneuvering but a very genuine and magical kind of truth--while people passed us as if we were invisible. He hugged me somewhat gently. I gave him a bit a financial assistance. I got in the vehicle and he waved as I drove off. 
   Inspiration lies face up on the plate in front of us. It suffers no garnish. It recoils at the suggestion. Here's hoping your version of inspiration tastes every bit as good.

Monday, October 6, 2014

STATS

In January 1970 the U.S. unemployment rate was 3.9%. In September 2014, it was 5.9%.

One hundred dollars in 1970 had the buying power of $603 in 2014.

In October 1976, a gallon of unleaded gasoline sold for .63 per gallon. A guy came out and pumped it for you. In October 2014, that same gallon cost 3.48. Self service rules.

In 1976 the nonfarm federal minimum wage was $2.20. Today the federal minimum wage is $7.25.

In 1970, 203 million people called the United States home. In 2014, the number was 310 million.

The 1969 Pontiac Firebird Transam cost $4,300. Today Pontiacs are not manufactured at all. 


The average height for a man in 1960 was five feet eight inches. Today that same man is five foot nine. For that extra inch of tallness, today's average man weighs 27 pounds more than he did in 1960. 

The percentage of the U.S. population in 1970 who could boast of having earned a Bachelor's Degree was ten percent. In 2014, the percentage was closer to twenty percent.

More than forty percent of all Americans read neither a book of fiction nor nonfiction in the last twelve months.

In 2014 there are 32 NFL franchise teams. After the merger of the AFL and NFL in 1970, there were 26 teams. 


Saturday, October 4, 2014

IN SEARCH OF JUDAISM

   The easiest course of action is to reject all religion. Being as that is the easiest path, I have chosen to take a different tact. Just as I used to loathe the arrogance of fundamentalist Christians who claimed everyone who exhibited tendencies they themselves were repressing (homosexuality, free love, a desire for a liberal arts education, etc) were bound to go to hell, so have I evolved to the point where cocky atheists such as Ron Reagan and Bill Maher irritate me to madness. "God is just Santa Claus for grown-ups," asserted someone, smug in his imbecility. How quaint. How glib. Oh, to be a cocksure asswipe now that Autumn has arrived. 
   Granted, the more fundamentalist of religious practitioners make rejection of God a tempting worldview. But just as it is stupid to assume that the Timothy McVeighs of the world represent the true nature of Christianity, so is it bewildering for others to conclude that the Islamic State of Levant represents the purist form of Islam. In the world I claim my part of, intolerance of any sort is the real enemy. 
   I like to select my own personal religious persuasion based on the merits. I'll pick Judaism. I've always felt persecuted by the rest of society and no other group has experienced such a lingering hatred as have the Jews. Therefore, if I'm going to embrace any particular religion, that'll be the one for me.
   Judaism traces its heritage to the covenant God made with Abraham and his lineage — that God would make them a sacred people and give them a holy land. The primary figures of Israelite culture include the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophet Moses, who received God's law at Mt. Sinai. Judaism is a tradition grounded in the religious, ethical, and social laws as they are articulated in the Torah — the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
  In 63 B. C., the Romans conquered Jerusalem, center of the Jewish homeland. First, the Romans persecuted Christians, charging them with being heretics.The Romans allowed the Jews to practice their religion freely, but such tolerance did not last. The Romans ordered the Jews to worship Roman gods. Jews resisted, but division among Jews followed, one side insisting on orthodoxy, the other side (including Jesus) arguing that Jews must be willing to adapt. After the death of Christ, his followers renounced Judaism and established Christianity. You can thank me for the history lesson later.

 Having been expelled from Palestine in 72 A.D., the Jews settled in North Africa, Spain, and eastern and western Europe. For the Jewish people, life outside of Palestine was called the Diaspora. At the start of each Jewish New Year, Jews in the Diaspora would toast one another and promise, "Next year in Jerusalem." But by the fourth century, Constantine the Great declare Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Soon enough, the Christians began persecuting the Jews, referring to them as "Christ killers," based on the idea that it had been the Jews who had demanded that Pilate proceed with the execution. St. Augustine declared Jews to be the descendants of Cain. In the twelfth century, a blood libel began due to the erroneous belief that a Jew had murdered a Christian to use his blood to make matzo balls. In the fourteenth century, the Jews took the heat for the bubonic plague. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, demanded that Jewish synagogues be set on fire. 
   While the Nazis certainly did not launch anti-semitism, they were the most accomplished at institutionalizing its brutality and barbarism. 
   It used to drive me crazy when my supposedly enlightened parents would make a remark about "jewing somebody down" on the price paid for an item. I doubt either of them had met a Jewish person until they were approaching their eighties.
   When we look at the inhumane acts committed by adherents of different religions, the Christians and the Muslims have it all over the Jews.
  • On August 5, 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page used a semiautomatic weapon to murder six people during an attack on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Page’s connection to the white supremacist movement was well-documented: he had been a member of the neo-Nazi rock bands End Empathy and Definite Hate.
  • On July 27, 2008, Christian Right sympathizer Jim David Adkisson walked into the Knoxville Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee during a children’s play and began shooting people at random. Two were killed, while seven others were injured but survived. Adkisson said he was motivated by a hatred of liberals, Democrats and gays, and he considered neocon Bernard Goldberg’s book, 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, his political manifesto.
  • One Christian Right terrorist with ties to the Army of God was Paul Jennings Hill, who was executed by lethal injection on Sept. 3, 2003 for the murders of abortion doctor John Britton and his bodyguard James Barrett. Hill shot both of them in cold blood and expressed no remorse whatsoever; he insisted he was doing’s God’s work and has been exalted as a martyr by the Army of God.
  • February 26, 1993, six people died in the World Trade Center bombing.
  • December 24, 1994, The Armed Islamic Group of Algiers hijacked an Air France plane. Seven people died.
  • More than 3,000 died on September 11, 2001. You might have read about this.
   I'm not suggesting that acts of terrorism by Jews have never happened. They certainly have. But if one is to compare the scope of idiotic attacks on settlers on the West Bank against the Holocaust, I have to tell you the Jews come out looking pretty good.
   So before you rush out to buy tickets to the next Bill Maher festival, you might want to consider the possibility that you cannot judge a religion by its adherents. I certainly wouldn't want people to judge my agnosticism based on the snide comments of certain stand-up comedians.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

WHO?!?



Written by Lisa Ann Goodrich Klein Terzo etc.

So, I was talking to my husband the other day and I said, “RUDOLPH! What the hell is going on around here??!!!”

He had the audacity to ask me who Rudolph was, since his name was Henry.

So I said, “HENRY, what the hell is going on around here and where is Rudolph???”

He had the audacity to say he didn’t know.

So I said, “DON’T you think it’s time you found out?”

Well HE DID no such thing.

He called up some relative person and her husband and asked them over for a visit.

So THEY came over and I served them delicious Tastee Kakes from my science oven.

THEY were ungrateful. And they asked why I kept putting TIN FOIL in the science oven.

Well, I told them that Rudolph SAID that is proper protocol when sissies come over with designer bags and whiskey!

Well….

THEY said they didn’t know who Rudolph was!

So I said, “DON’T you THINK YOU should find out??? Gawd you people are STUPID!”

Soo..then the female sissy had to use the powder room that I recently redesigned thanks to the helpful real people on my very expensive television that I got at the flea market last week. SHE thought it was WISE to flush a FEMININE product down my perfectly clean toilet which I cleaned with a product I obtained from the neighbor who is not nuts. And, well then the shit hit the fan. Being that the POWDER room is upstairs over top of my beautiful beige and light blue living room, the toilet crashed through the ceiling, crushing the faux-banana-frond fan I had installed to save power on my power and water bill.

SHE said she was sorry.

I said she was indeed sorry and should put her underwear back on and mop up the floor while I contacted Amy’s List for a RELIABLE plumber.

Henry drank the whiskey.

Meanwhile, the male sissy was in the back-yard peeing on my neatly trimmed hedges because he obviously couldn’t use the powder room and he didn’t know we had a custom out-house with catalogs. My dog (the resin replica Boston Terrier I got from a sale at the garden store so I didn’t have to take care of a real dog) looked on in amusement. He didn’t understand the disrobing.

Henry admired the male sissy’s tramp stamp.

I told the boy to find his underwear.

During ALL OF THIS NONSENSE...I was on hold with Amy’s List. My computer wasn’t working as I had left it at a shop I had found at Amy’s List, so I had to use the telephone. I used Henry’s because he had more minutes than I did and he didn’t really mind because he is just dumb.

Henry was STILL drinking the whiskey.

SO ANYWAY...if you people could please stop interrupting me I will TRY to finish this. Sheesh.

So ya….I got a plumber list from Amy’s list and wrote it down in my steno pad. I always keep steno pads because they have lines in the middle so I can make two lists if I need to. AND so, I called one of the bastards up and told him about the fan and the shit.

He asked if I had whiskey.

I told him that I would ask Henry, but I did have traveler’s checks left over from 1985.

He showed up.

Plumbers from Amy’s List have to wear name badges on their shirts so you know they’re plumbers and not piano tuners.

When the doorbell chimed, (a tune I personally wrote, by the way) I opened the door to greet a snappy young man with the required name badge.

I walked him into the house and gathered the Henry and sissies around, pointed to the man’s shirt badge and said THIS…..DAMN YOU. IS RUDOLPH!

Really, his badge said Rudy….but he had told me at a trade show last week that his full name was Rudolph.
Rudolph, the world's best dressed plumber.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

VOICE YOUR CHOICE

   Having been born in 1958, I was a kid in the 1960s, a youngster in the 1970s, and a bit of a grown-up in the 1980s. As with many of my kin and friends, I identified with several of the popular and noteworthy people of the day. Likewise, I reacted against certain other famous folks. This sort of internalizing of certain values and rejection of others befalls most generations, I'm sure. Often enough, vast civilizations such as the one we call the United States of America witness significant shifting in the nature of that system's heroes and villains. To my father--born in 1920--the important political people were Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, along with Ohio's Governor Rhodes. In the entertainment realm, my Dad loved what was then called Country & Western music, digging as he did Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Buck Owens, among others. In sports, baseball began and ended his fascination. The Big Red Machine--the Cincinnati Reds under Sparky Anderson's reign--was, for him, the only game in town. Regarding big business, he didn't trust millionaires much, although he admitted to idolizing Henry Ford for helping to build much of the middle class. Ford Motor Company commercials blared from the portable radio my father played while shaving in the mornings. My own joy of singing in the early daybreak hours stems from listening to Dad wail along with Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On," making up lyrics as he went, one sample of which sounded like "You should have seen old Rudolph quiver when they slapped him in the face with a reindeer liver. I'm moving on. . . " Both my parents loved absurdities, but Dad in particular embraced them. He would remove the characters from songs and insert my name or mom's, putting us in some fairly ridiculous scenarios. "He stood six foot six and weighed forty-five pounds/With a scruff of yellow hair he'd make the rounds/Big Phil/Big bad Phil. . . " I was only about five years old at the time.
   For the first few years of my life, my heroes mirrored those of my father. The best present anyone could get me in those days would have been either a record or a book. I burned through albums by many of the aforementioned singers and scalded my eyes with the adventures of writers such as Jack London, L. Frank Baum, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and Daniel Defoe.
   Toward the end of the 1960s, my interests took a permanent detour. While I still loved the songs of those hillbilly millionaires, I also found myself singing and slapping my hands on arm chairs to the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, The Stooges, and other edgy types. I also discovered jazz and could not get enough of the strange sounds of Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk. All of these people shared with the Country & Western performers a condition of being outside of society. Their work may have been understood, but not by just any old body, and that--along with what I considered to be their musical adventurousness--is what I loved about them. 
   The early days of my politics shared that outsider status. From the daily newspapers I would clip articles about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jerry Rubin, John Sinclair, Abbie Hoffman and the Berrigan brothers. Some of the 1960s greatest minds were attached to something then strange and exciting to me--namely women. Among the second wave feminists, Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir were to me equally gorgeous. On a less lascivious level, I loved reading articles and books by Kate Millett, Betty Friedan, and Alice Rossi. As my social attitudes were entering an alignment, my manner of speaking, dressing and acting took on similarities with the people the television media had decided were agitators, weirdos, and radicals. My hair grew a bit longer, my wardrobe took on a calculated casualness, a la bleached-out bell-bottom bluejeans, bright colorless shirts and the occasional beaded choker. At the same time I started employing certain words with very antagonist intentions: "The administration," "the system," "the establishment," "the fuzz." This was not entirely due to psychological programming from television, radio and seventh grade social studies class. I thought hard about what I was doing and often took unfair amounts of criticisms from my friends and classmates. 
   My heroes from those days united around a kind of morality. What I mean is that those people had made the moral and conscious decisions to be anti-war, pro civil rights, anti-materialistic, pro-measured life, anti-imperialistic, pro choice. They were not reading rules about how to think and feel out of some nonexistent book on political correctness. What they did was to take the lessons learned from writers such as John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Ursula LeGuin, Leigh Brackett, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Richard Wright, from television shows such as "The Twilight Zone," "Outer Limits," and "Star Trek," from movies such as The Blackboard Jungle, The Agitator, Breathless, The 400 Blows and Blow Up--and concluded that then-contemporary society was intellectually and spiritually bankrupt. 
   The way I moved across this madly spinning orb reflected those absorbed values. 
   I knew very few people who shared my feelings. But I believed in my soul that if I kept looking and living long enough, I would find the people with whom I was psychologically linked.
   The college I attended supplied those people. 
   We'll talk more about that, as well as what is actually most disturbing about the people we are encouraged to idolize nowadays next time out. Until then, remember to attend the church of your choice. Or not.

   

Sunday, September 21, 2014

THE PEOPLE'S CHAMPION

   The name of the game is be hit and hit back.
                                           --Warren Zevon

   To make the claim that one certain song is better than all the other songs feels absurd. A given tune can hold tremendous importance at a given time, yet be forgotten entirely during a different moment. To argue that The Kite Runner or The Great Gatsby or even Ocean's Apart reigns over all other literature flirts with folly. Within the world of the written word, what can a concept such as "the best" even indicate? Would it be remotely possible to select one painting by Picasso and declare that to be the supreme creation of our age? For that matter, by what standards could be taken for granted that Picasso was the ultimate master?
   Even in the world of sports, winning a Super Bowl, or an NBA Championship, or a World Series says (almost) nothing about the long-term survival of that team's status.
   One thing, however, stands firm and tall against any dispute: The greatest boxer in all of history was Muhammad Ali. He would tell you so himself. Indeed, he has done so many, many times. And he told the truth. 
   Two out of three men who beat Ali have found their names dissolved from the public memory. Who today remembers Larry Holmes, much less Leon Spinks? And the only reason people still recall Joe Frazier (who defeated Ali in 1971) is because our champ--The People's Champ--came back and beat the man--twice. The same holds true for Ken Norton, a fighter more celebrated for having lost to Muhammad than for having beaten him. Yes, the people Ali defeated linger in the memory better than those few who defeated him. Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Cleveland Williams, Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena--these men went down hard, their legends in place because they had the honor of being destroyed by Muhammad Ali.
   Several good movies have trotted out attempts at replicating this man's glory. For my money, two of the better one's are A.K.A. Cassius Clay (1970) and The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013). Both films draw upon inspiring footage to tell most of the visual tale. Both are sure to emphasize the champ's ability to self-promote. Both utilize the social context of the Nation of Islam, civil rights and the Vietnam War for societal context. Yet of the two, it is the more recent that you should see, assuming you can only make time for one of them. A.K.A., though completed and released prior to the United States Supreme Court decision which overturned his conviction for draft evasion, nevertheless feels somewhat light and airy compared to the more hard-hitting Trials presentation. A.K.A., directed by Jim Jacobs and narrated by Richard Kiley, tries to avoid offending its audience by overstepping its ground on the issue of the issues that led to Clay/Ali being stripped of his championship title. Those issues, of course, were black nationalism and declaring himself a conscientious objector. 
   Trials pulls no punches in this regard. Director Bill Siegel begins the movie with a speech by the amazingly pretentious talk show host David Susskind calling Ali out as a coward and a fraud. Ali was no such thing and by the end of the movie, even the skeptics will know it. 
   





Friday, September 19, 2014

BLINDED BY THE NFL

   I began with the idea that the topic of this article would be police brutality in the state of California. I even did quite a bit of research to that end.* However, something I care for even less than police abuse of power flashed its laser beams across our landscape while the piece was in process. Ray Rice got caught coldcocking his future wife in an elevator. 
   Let me be clear: I know shit about sports. Furthermore, I care shit about sports. However, I do know something about getting punched out, just as I happen to be passingly familiar with media obsessions. So when the TMZ video showing the brutal knockout aired over and over, I admit I did experience an initial sense of wonder as to the employment consequences for Rice. And, like you, I felt a visceral wave of disgust. In fact, I was rocked by two waves: First, I wanted to replay the scene in that elevator so that I could step between Rice and his beloved, an admittedly insane act of hubris on my part. Second, I wanted to scream at the salivating public that the primary reason why this scene has resonated like a 9.0 killer earthquake is a shared territory of responsibility. 

   Football is a land acquisition game. It is, at its core, a timed war with tremendous and complex rules matched in their complexity only by the amount of adoration bestowed upon the participants by the rest of us. The games are surrounded by sexually provocative displays of enthusiasm, corporate sponsorship, uniforms, patriotism, casualties, media coverage and endless repetition of the battles, none of which ever ultimately settle anything. And, like war, the game allows many people to get their kicks vicariously through their heroes. 
   I doubt that in our collective lifetimes we as humans will force ourselves to evolve to the point where we reject violence against others. Certainly we believe that we are horrified when we watch a stronger person abuse a weaker one. But that horror manifests in a very situational manner. When GI's slaughtered hundreds at My Lai during the war against Vietnam, most of us screamed in agony. When the CIA set up rendition centers during the Iraq War to facilitate the torture of prisoners, we responded with the emotional revulsion of the St. Vitus dance. But every Sunday between September and January, we continued to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" and salute the warlike behavior of Giants, Red Skins, Bengals, Packers and Raiders (the reason the Arizona Cardinals never win the Super Bowl has a lot to do with the fragility of their name, I suspect). 
   Kids from working class families have very little chance of escaping the bleak nature of their economic realities. Sports and other forms of entertainment remain an attractive alternative to vertical social mobility. Become a warrior and you might just make it out of the jungle. But how? Well, you need to bulk up, learn the skills of the killer, embrace the temporary spoils of war, gain some local sponsorships and you too may be the next Raven spectacular. 
   But don't make the mistake of believing that the mass of the American people will be comfortable with you carrying your learned behavior over into the realm of your personal life. Just because those mind-altering steroids that helped you gain a hundred pounds of pure muscle served you well on the battlefield does not mean that you get to beat up people in your personal life. Oh, hell no! Even though your brain has been paralyzed for the benefit of the NFL owners, that does not absolve you of a certain social responsibility. Nope. You have to take all that leftover energy and channel it into breast cancer awareness programs instead. Never mind that the fans in attendance at your games get drunk and beat each other up because they want to be just like you. Any time you feel yourself thinking about hitting your kid or slapping your wife, just pretend you're a California police officer, or something of similar responsibility. Hey, you're a role model to millions of kids. Behave yourself, pal. 
   Right. That'll happen thanks to the NFL's "peace initiatives." Stay tuned.


*What follows is an extremely partial list, one preempted by the Ray Rice story.
Michael Zinzun: Permanently blinded in one eye by police in 1986, he was awarded $3.84million in damages.
Rodney King: In 1991, four LAPD officers beat the hell out of this man--on camera. Charged locally, the four cops were acquitted. King won a civil suit of $3.8 million. Officers Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell were convicted in federal court. 
Wayne Calvin Byrd II: Along with four other associates, he was beaten and arrested by the LAPD's CRASH unit in West Los Angeles. Several Pacific Division officers were found guilty of various civil rights violations, including false imprisonment. All charges against the four victims were eventually dropped. 
Javier Ovando: This man was shot and paralyzed by two LAPD officers. The same officers planted a gun on their victim to make it appear he had shot first. In the largest police settlement in Los Angeles history, Ovando was awarded $15 million in damages.
Delphine Allen: The so-called Oakland Riders,a group of presumably rogue police officers, systematically brutalized people on their beat. $11 million was awarded in damages.
Donovan Jackson: This sixteen-year-old was repeatedly assaulted by an Inglewood cop named Jeremy Morse.

Monday, September 1, 2014

FPU

   The expression "community service" leads to visions of forced cleaning of city parks as repayment to the town for breaking a minor law, such as punching a photographer. Sometimes the term takes on a different connotation. Sometimes it means chasing away drug dealers, painting over graffiti, or teaching local kids to read. 
   A certain for-profit university in our local midst here in Phoenix takes that phrase to mean massive expansion.
   This For Profit University began in 1949, never amounting to much when it was run by the Southern Baptists. Then in 2004, the school found itself acquired by a group of businessmen. Over the last decade, the for-profit private Christian university has built an arena, a bowling alley, a promenade, an aquatics center, a food court and a whole bunch of dormitories and parking lots. Enrollment has soared, in large part because of FPU's aggressive campaign to compete with the public universities in the state and region. Their enrollment has hit 59,000 students, many of them online. 
   Times have changed and the For Profit University has evolved with those times. The old way held that the money brought into an educational system through academics, research and athletics recycled itself back into the community that supported that system. The new way, which For Profit spearheads, is to say that the profit from educational, research and athletic endeavors goes back to the shareholders. Those men and women, of course, are expected to reinvest their profits into the community, create jobs, keep the parks clean, scrub the toilets, and all manner of community service. They are job creators, these guys are, and woe unto those who do not get the picture.
   I must admit, I was one of those who failed to see the revelatory light of the FPU masterplan. What I thought--and you will no doubt find this quite naive--was that the school was going to expand itself over an area of our neighborhood, displace a whole lot of people, and pocket the profits. Clearly, my thinking on this matter was out of date.
   I attended a community meeting just last evening, as I write this, a meeting that addressed what is called a Planned Unit Development. If you are unfamiliar, a PUD is a way of rezoning communities so that businesses do not have to rely on antiquated means of takeover such as imminent domain. A PUD allows companies to petition the city for permission to expand into areas they hope to acquire. All this effort requires high-priced attorneys and it was just such a group who moderated last night's standing room only gathering of concerned citizens.
   I had hoped the turnout would be hearty. I had spent the better part of the previous day doing TV news interviews to promote the event. The response surprised me. We had better than 250 local residents and a smattering of co-opted individuals in attendance. 
   The head attorney lead the conversation and set the rules. Rule one: After the initial presentation, a question and answer period would take place. The moderator would call on people to ask questions and that would be the only time people in the audience would be allowed to speak. Rule two: There would be no discussion of buying properties. 
   I didn't care much for either of those rules. But that was way back last evening, before the glory of FPU had lightened mine eyes.
   As I mentioned, the head lawyer moderated, but he was not the only Esq. in attendance. There was an attorney charged with relocations, another who handled community reach out, and another still who dealt with something called entitlement zoning.
   The Q and A was interesting. The school announced they had no plans to widen any streets due to increased traffic. One person inquired about feral cats and abandoned dogs that had been left behind. Another inquired about the Christian students throwing beer cans into the streets. Another pair mentioned that they were unhappy with the religious intolerance toward Muslims and Buddhists. And one person, who claimed to be a former student in the Master's Program, declared his love for the school, especially because "This is the only school that requires a research paper based on a verse from the Bible."
   For the most part, the crowd was antagonistic. People complained about old trees being cut down and old people being evicted. The lawyers explained that those people were quite mistaken. Any problems with speeding through residential neighborhoods should be turned over to the police and they certainly did not endorse religious bigotry.
   Toward the end of the presentation the moderator announced that they had no plans to acquire the community where I live. I was told that the recent media exposure had been a determining factor.