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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.