Wednesday, December 10, 2008

After the first death

[Dylan Thomas, "A refusal to mourn the Death, by Fire, of a child in London"]

In Yogyakarta, we asked a local for directions, and he offered us to show us the Water Castle and surrounding kampung. The journey led us through several shops: the official doll maker of the king (or so we were told), a wood carver, oil painters, and batik makers.

Our guide told us that one of the shops contained the work of fifty artists. To survive, they had formed a collective.

Tourism isn't what it was ten years ago, he told us, when he was able to make a good living as an artist. Everything had changed after the Bali bombings. The tourists left and stayed away. The quality of life of the people dependent on the tourists sloped downward.

In early November of this year, the bombers were executed. In the back parts of our minds, we feared the worst: demonstrations, retaliation. But in Surabaya, the only thing I experienced was a taxi driver handing us a newspaper and pointing to the article saying that it was finished.

We get off the buses and trains and we are met by roving hordes of drivers. "Where are you going, Mister?" In the more touristy areas of some towns, the becak drivers ask the same. People are desperate for work.

In Yogyakarta, we hired several becak, bicycle cabs, to carry us around town. We journeyed for about two hours. When we wanted to look at something, they waited. While we traveled, the driver talked. He also mentioned the Bali bombings. He said we were his only fare of the day.

We paid about $3.50. Enough to feed him for half a week. Some of the drivers sleep in their becak. He is surviving. But things just don't seem right to me.

Most of the people here are honest. We went for food the other night, to get takeaway from a nearby food stall. We filled our tupperware with food for three people. The man charged us 80 cents. I tried to pay $1.00. He wouldn't take it.

Our guide to the Water Castle didn't pressure us to buy any of his goods. Tourists often get the hard sell. The artists are desperate for money, and some tourists will pay five times the "Indonesian price" for some goods when pressured.

"Come back when luck provides you with better fortune," our guide said. He said that it is "kembali," the concept of return. A favor will be returned with favor. We gave him a small offering for his time and walked off into the night.

Next week, we leave for Bali for Christmas. Ironically, Bali may have been the tourist area least affected by the Bali bombings. Maybe its beaches are too beautiful for the tourists to stay away. Or maybe it's something else.

But it still has its people who are desperate for money. Those who try to find what they can from a system that, even while it trudges on, is partially a ghost of a creature. A creature that had the sparkle in its eye extinguished by the sparkle of an exploding bomb.

And who are we but just meager caretakers, who feed that creature when we can, even though it can never be enough?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Late night donut attack

It is 12:23 am. I have just returned from J.CO, where I consumed two donuts and an iced hazelnut latte. My head is now swimming from the overload of sugar and caffeine. I hope I will be able to fall asleep in an hour.

Check out the donut list on the J.CO webpage, where they try to make donuts sound like health food. For example, the "Why Nut":
Here is a donut with a special topping combination: American Peanut Butter and premium white chocolate topping, containing anti-oxidant to avoid you of cancer and heart attack.
While I didn't try it, I was somewhat tempted by the "Mona Pisa" donut, described thusly:
Get stunned by its beauty of rosy cheese and chicken sausage. Let her smile overwhelms [sic] your appetite.
Have I mentioned the high rate of diabetes in Indonesia?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Welcome to 1998!

The woman and I finally failed in our stand against modern technology and bought cellphones. While I didn't buy the cheapest, most stripped-down model, our phones are far from fancy. But they do have FM radio!

As one of my coworkers stated when I told him this, "Welcome to the '90s."

I guess it is a step up from the AM radio model.

A couple weeks ago, I went searching for some shoes. This task is very difficult here, since stores don't stock many shoes in sizes as large as mine. My shopping process involved me going into stores, asking for all the shoes in my size, and then rejecting the two ugly pairs they would bring out.

Eventually, I did find a pair. They are Airwalks.

So today I was at work walking around wearing my Airwalks and playing with my new FM radio phone. And occasionally stroking my freshly trimmed Fu Manchu mustache.

Needless to say, I was the coolest dude in the building.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I will tell you something if you have ears to listen

My friend Dave and I walked over to the nearby pool hall to talk poetry. He is applying to grad schools and wanted some feedback on his writing sample before he sent it out.

Before we began, he went to the restroom. While I was waiting, a white guy walked by. I nodded at him, since he was a bule like me.

"Where are you from?" he asked, and I told him.

"What do you think about Obama?" he asked.

I don't like to discuss politics, especially in bars, and especially with people from different countries. I only said, "I think he will do better than the man currently in office."

"Hmm. That is interesting," he replied. "Very interesting."

He pried for more information, but I only gave different versions of the same response. Each time he replied, "That's interesting." When I asked for his thoughts, he would only say, "It doesn't matter," or, "We speak a different language."

I learned he was from Finland and living on a military pension. He had lived in Surabaya for almost two years.

Dave returned from the bathroom. We introduced ourselves; the Finn's name was Jan. He asked me what type of alcohol I liked; I said good whiskey or good rum. He spoke as if he was going to buy us a shot, "just a little one."

He walked away, and the shots never came.

My friend and I talked poetry. Eventually Jan returned. He asked if he could sit, and I moved my backpack to give him space. But I kept talking to Dave.

"If you need to work, just say so," Jan said. I stared at him. "Just say so, and I will let you be."

"Do you mind?" I asked.

"Not at all. You just need to say what you want." And he walked away.

We finished our drinks and our discussion and went to the bar to pay. While one of the bartenders went for our tab, another bartender put two pitchers in front of us, and soon a third. We looked down the bar and saw Jan. We sat down next to him.

As we poured our beers, Rowan and our roommate Sinead arrived. They sat down and Jan motioned to the bartender for another pitcher.

We were arranged with me on Jan's left, Rowan and Sinead on my left, and Dave at the far left.

Jan and I talked. I learned little about him. Most questions were answered with more refrains of, "It doesn't matter," or, "We speak a different language."

At one point, he determined the girls weren't drinking fast enough. "If you don't drink, I will give you a massage," he said. The girls drank.

Jan looked at me. "Do you feel..." he said and then beat his chest, "...for the blond? Because I may have an interest."

"Yes, I do."

"Then I will not pursue her."

He ordered six whiskey sours. I figured he had two for himself and one for each of the rest of us. But he put three in front of himself and three in front of me. "The men will drink these." Rowan pointed at Dave further down the bar. "We are drinking these," said Jan.

And we did. We sat in relative silence until he got up to use the restroom. "You're not drinking," he said as he passed Rowan. He stopped and put his hand on Rowan's shoulders until I motioned his hands away.

"What are you doing in Surabaya?" Rowan asked.

"I have a little interest," Jan said. Later, Rowan said she thought he meant prostitutes; Surabaya has Asia's largest red light district.

He returned and we continued drinking.

Then he looked me in the eye. "Are you a professional?" he said, and I replied negatively.

He pointed at the bartender, who was slicing lemons for more whiskey sours. "Is he a professional?"

"He's a professional bartender," I said.

"Give me the knife," Jan said to the bartender, and the bartender complied. Jan held the knife with the back of the blade running up his forearm. "If I hold the knife this way, you can't take it from me."

He spun the blade in his fingers and returned it to the original position. "Could you take it from me?"

"No," I said. I waited until he set the knife back down.

We sat in silence for awhile.

"I will tell you something if you have ears to listen," he said. He stared at me. He placed his hand on my leg, uncomfortably high up my thigh.

"Do you have ears to listen? I will tell you something if you have ears to listen."

I stared at him and he stared back for almost two minutes. When he began speaking, he spoke quietly. I couldn't hear at first, but then began to make out places and dates. And then numbers.
And then the words, "people killed."

I remember only two parts of his soldier's accounting:

"Lebanon. 1982. Twelve people killed.

"Afghanistan..." Here his voice gave out and he moved his lips soundlessly. I thought I saw him mouth the words, "Sixty-two."

We sat in silence. Later, I tried speaking, but received, "It doesn't matter," and, "We speak a different language."

He paid our tab, and we continued to drink. He passed out in his bar stool soon thereafter.

My friends and I finished our drinks. The bartender assured me that he would take care of Jan. This had happened before.

We left the bar and headed for home, just around the corner through Surabaya's thick nighttime air. My bed would be waiting for me, and my girl would lie beside me, and my sleep would be dreamless.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A question of giving

We headed south out of Surabaya to the smaller city of Malang this past weekend. Unlike our own bustling chaotic urban sprawl monster, Malang seems to allow for foot traffic. Part of this is the cooler temperatures, and part of it is the inclusion of such pedestrian niceties as sidewalks and crosswalks.

So we walked.

And saw more of the developed world culture that we have placed ourselves in but also partially separated ourselves from.

In any city, anywhere, there will be people in need, and people begging. Sometimes they sit quietly waiting, other times they grab your arm or follow you around.

And there are many of them. So many that one cannot give to all. You see this suffering, and you want to do something, but if I handed even a dollar to everyone, I would be out $50 by day's end.

We gave to the crippled: the man missing an arm, the man with the ravaged knees. We sometimes ignored those who begged for money even while they offered goods for sale.

We are teaching English here in the underdeveloped world (though such a description relies on one's definition of "development"), but we are working for a private company. We are teaching spoiled rich kids, not the kids who could use an added skill to raise their quality of life.

The kids ask us where we live, and then they laugh because they know that their neighborhoods and their houses are far superior to ours. Some of them have bedrooms larger than our classrooms at the school. These are not people who need my help to forge a path through the world.

I knew sort of what we were getting into when we signed up. I expected this quality of life. But what I didn't expect was how disheartening it would be to realize that I am not making a difference here.

In Alaska, I taught nights at the University. I helped people who wanted to learn, since these are the types of people who attend night classes. And I worked my normal job for a company serving nonprofits. Most nights, I could go home feeling like I was doing something to improve the world, even if it was just a little something.

But here, I don't know. We are not rich by any measure here, though we can give a little money, but there has to be some other way to help, some way to make a difference. We need to find it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Shameless self-promotion

Those who know me well know that I'm sort of fascinated by the Vietnam War. I'm not really a historian, but I'm interested in the psychological ramifications of the war, particularly as it affects my generation, the children of the men who fought there.

I haven't written a lot of poetry this year, but a War Poetry Contest did get me to sit down and type awhile back.

Like last year, I was a finalist this year. No money for me, which was a little disappointing, but I did get the poems put up on some slick-looking webpages. Check them out if you're interested:

2007: "A marking, for each and all"

2008: "Zeno in the jungle" and "Through the window of a restaurant in Little Saigon"

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The future...

The woman said that sometimes she has visions about the future. I don't think she was joking, but I don't know if I completely grasped what she meant. She did say that she experiences deja vu quite frequently.

However, she says that she has had no dreams about the trip to Indonesia. Neither have I. I've been strangely calm about the situation, and this fact is somewhat weirding me out.

We have all had those dreams where we are falling. But I don't think it is the falling that scares us so much as the not knowing when, or if, we will hit the ground.

To find some touchpoints in music, the song "Mad World" by Tears for Fears, later remade by Gary Jules for the Donnie Darko soundtrack, features the line, "The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had." Perhaps death is a known quantity, and therefore somewhat acceptable.

Similarly, a blues rock band from the early '90s called The Badlees had a song called "Fear of Falling," which featured the line, "I have no fear of falling, but I hate hittin' the ground."

I don't think processes frighten us as much as outcomes. We don't try things because we are unsure if we will like them. We may stay with the wrong person not because leaving is difficult, but because we fear how our world will then change. The known is far less frightening than the unknown. The fall is less frightening if we know if, when, or how we will hit the ground, or something else in the way.

In the case of our trip to Indonesia, though, I have thought very little about the process or the outcomes. Such thoughts seem to be avoiding both my conscious and unconscious thoughts, and those of the woman as well.

What does this portend for the future? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cutting to the core of things

I hate dull knives. I don't know why people don't keep their knives sharp.

My mom is scared of cutting herself, which isn't such an irrational fear. However, this fear has made her decide that a dull knife is a better knife. Then, because the knife isn't sharp enough to effectively cut things, she has to press harder and then the knife slips and she cuts herself.

I am currently helping at a bed and breakfast that also has a restaurant. You would expect the restaurant's knives to be sharp.

But they are not.

And it is annoying.

There is probably some sort of political metaphor in here somewhere, but I am too lazy to look for it.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Matt Damon as Matt Damon: Political Analyst

Recently, Matt Damon spoke out against Sarah Palin.

Perhaps my favorite part is where he says something like, "I need to know if she thinks dinosaurs were here 4,000 years ago. She's gonna have the nuclear codes, so I need to know if she thinks that."

Look at the comments about the video on YouTube, and then compare them to the comments on MSN. This little exercise provokes some interesting thoughts about the types of readers who visit different sources.

I do agree with some of the comments. For example, what qualifies Damon to discuss politics? How much can he know about the "average" American? However, I don't think that his status as an actor completely invalidates his ideas.

A final question: Does our knowledge of the source where the information is provided (in this case, YouTube or MSN) affect our viewing of the video?

Friday, September 12, 2008

More political meanderings

In my earlier post about 9/11, I mentioned the burden of being informed. We can only read so much.

My own attempts to stay informed often lead me to left-leaning publications. I like several websites that combine culture, entertainment, business, and politics (such as Salon, Time, and Slate); unfortunately, most of these lean in a singular political direction, which somewhat limits some of the debate that could occur in my own mind. However, I feel that an awareness of the biases of what I read help me make a fairer interpretation of the source, even though I am not taking in such a rounded field of opinion. (Perhaps I am just another victim of the much-discussed "liberal media bias.")

When I wrote about 9/11, I was aware of an article recently published in Salon, "What's the difference between Palin and Muslim fundamentalists? Lipstick." However, I didn't want to link to the article without having a chance to read it.

I won't offer much for commentary here, but I will say that it is an interesting and thought-provoking article. Take a look and see what you think.

And it plays off of the jokes I mentioned earlier, which gives this post that nice level of self reflexivity that I enjoy so much.

In which I further define myself through my taste in music

We entered a bar in the small town of Vedano Olona, Italy. We ordered the locals' drink of choice, named something like the dark black blackness or some such, even though the drink is far from black in color. It is a mix of spumante, Campari, vermouth, and possibly bitters, and is an enchanting red hue.

We waited for the server to mix the drinks, a time consuming process because of all the ingredients and because they bring it out stratified in layers.

On the large projection screen behind us played a Kid Rock song I have never heard before, "All Summer Long."

The song reminds me a lot of my late teens and early twenties hanging out on the lakes of Wisconsin, although we had a few less women pole dancing in bikinis.

It struck me as odd that such a song would be playing in a small town in Italy. I wondered how much of the cultural reference would transfer. For that matter, I wondered how the song would seem to someone from the city of New York or maybe Los Angeles, where such small town reminiscences would possibly seem just as foreign.

Perhaps audiences are just taken in by the sampling of "Werewolves of London" which later gets mashed-up with the chord progression from "Sweet-Home Alabama."

I sipped my drink, content, but also craving the water of a far off place.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sapere è mezzo della battaglia

Tomorrow is September 11th.

I am in Italy, and from here you would never know that tomorrow is a day that carries a lot of weight for a lot of people. The news features some American politics, but most of it is coverage of the mudslinging between candidates and of parodies of the race from sources such as JibJab.

The news showed Palin cracking a joke: "What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull?"

She paused, and then gave the punchline: "Lipstick."

The news followed with Obama's response: "You can put lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig."

(The news didn't show it, but his quote continued, "You can wrap up an old fish in a piece of paper and call it change. It's still going to stink after eight years. We've had enough.")

But nothing about September 11th.

It makes me wonder about our own news. How much does the common American insulate himself or herself from knowledge about the workings of the rest of the world?

I remember a former cohort from the teaching world who asked his students if they knew the name of the president of France, and almost no one knew the answer.

Perhaps I'm naïve to expect a mention of 9/11 here in Italy. I don't really know why I thought the Italians would care. Do we Americans care about politics in Italy? Do we even know who the head of their country is?

Perhaps I wanted a mention in the news so I could know how the day will be remembered. How many of us will take a moment to reflect on the tragedy? Do the events still hold a place in the mind of the "average" American?

And how often will the numbers, 9/11, be tossed about as some sort of generic rallying cry?

One Family Guy episode features Lois running for mayor. Her campaign speech starts to fail, so she stouts spewing random phrases such as "9/11!" "Osama Bin Laden!" "Terrorists!" The crowd roars into an approving frenzy.

Here in Italy, people have asked us things such as, "Obama is the only person I see on TV. How can he not win?"

We tried responding with talk of demographics and such, but people's interest only runs so deep.

Obviously, each of us cannot know everything about the politics of the world. And I don't want to sound like a GI Joe public service announcement from back in the day: "And knowing is half the battle!"

But we do need to educate ourselves, and be smart about how we do it.

I remember a presentation a classmate gave way back in eighth grade social studies class. He claimed that Martin Luther King was actually a self-hating racist who was secretly working with the Ku Klux Klan. When the teacher asked him about the source, the student produced a stack of papers that he acquired from who knows where.

With a media system that thrives on the juicy bits, the mud slung back and forth, it's becoming harder and harder to know what to think and what to believe.

Soon, our nation makes a decision that affects not just our nation, but our nation's place in the world. America does not exist in a vacuum. If we do our best to educate ourselves about other countries, perhaps those other countries will respond in turn, making foreign policy a policy that is a little less foreign. Dialogue, by definition, flows more than one way.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Serial killer or cereal killer: who nose?

Those people who know me well know that I have an almost nonexistent sense of smell. It is a trait, I’ve been told, that I share with several serial killers.

Last night I was going to broil some dinner using the gas oven. Apparently, the house started to reek of gas before someone informed me that the broiler did not work so well.

Then today I read an article by Elizabeth Zierah, horribly titled “The Nose That Never Knows,” that chronicles her battle with anosmia, which she describes as “the medical term for ‘you can't smell anything.’” It is a condition that affects two million Americans.

Zierah has also had problems with cooking:

I've also found that life is more dangerous. I've burned food and melted pots so many times I should be declared a walking fire hazard. Like most anosmics, I view any gas appliance as an archnemesis. I've become compulsive about making sure my gas stove is really on when I turn the dial.
In addition to problems with cooking, anosmics have problems with eating. Food just doesn’t taste the same. I tend to dump lots of salt and hot sauce on stuff. I once almost ruined an awesome shepherd’s pie because I came dangerously close to adding too much garlic, mostly because I can’t taste garlic.

Some anosmics just stop eating a lot. This happened to Zierah, and she lost eight pounds. She had to find new ways to appreciate food:

What saved food for me, eventually, was texture, or "mouth feel." Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's, who has said he is anosmic, pushed his partner Jerry Greenfield to add bigger and bigger chunks to their ice cream.
In the article, Zierah relates some stories from the book The Scent of Desire by Dr. Rachel Herz.

Herz talks about Michael Hutchence, former singer of INXS, who committed suicide perhaps partially as a result of depression caused by the onset of anosmia following a blow to the head.

Herz also writes, "For those with this devastating condition called anosmia, everything changes. Our sense of smell is essential to our humanity: emotionally, physically, sexually, and socially."

If our sense of smell is essential to our humanity, does that mean that I am somehow less than human?

Zierah writes:

It's clinically documented that acquired anosmia often leads to anxiety and depression. Just take a look at any online anosmia support group, and you'll see thread after thread discussing how to fight sadness, frustration, and loss of sex drive. In extreme cases these distressing emotions can become overwhelming.
I find solace in a single word in that paragraph: “acquired.” I can’t remember ever having a sense of smell. I don’t see how I can mourn the lack of something I’ve never had.

I don’t know why I can’t smell. My twin brother can smell. My parents can smell. I don’t know when or where things went wrong.

Unfortunately, my other senses have not super-compensated for my lack of smell. My eyes are horrible, as is my hearing ability. Even my sense of touch is lacking. I tend to wound myself without even realizing it.

But my lack of smell has made me super efficient. I never waste time by stopping to smell the roses.

Which leaves plenty of time for other stuff, like plotting the demises of my enemies.


The previous discussion of gas has led me to think of other ways to save energy and reduce consumption. Last night, I ate cereal straight out of the box so I wouldn’t have to use water to clean a bowl.

And now, the EU is pushing forward regulations that will require manufacturers to make the standby modes of electric devices more efficient. The regulations are a stake to the heart of the dreaded electrical “vampire mode.”

Until we enforce similar regulations here—early improvements will probably result more from foreign manufacturers meeting the requirements of other countries—unplug appliances you aren’t using. Even if you don’t think you’re saving the world, you can at least save a buck or two.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Wildly gas-ticulating

[Ed. Note: I talked to Steve awhile ago about each of us blogging about a shared topic, a sort of intellectual exchange and a way to take in some different perspectives. One night, I was lying awake in bed worrying about the world, and decided on the following topic: Gas. I passed that single word on to Steve, with no other guidelines. Check out the result of his efforts over at Mixed Cookies. Feel free to comment here or there. Or if you have a blog of your own, let the dialoguing begin, and I will link to it from here. Enjoy!]

Rowan has been trying to sell her car, a little gas-sipper. The other day, a guy pulled into the yard in a giant truck with tires that reached up to my nipples. He wanted something more gas efficient. And a couple days earlier, a woman came to look at the car with her young child in tow. She wanted to replace her Yukon.

People are feeling the pinch of the economy and looking for relief. For some folks, the use of less gas is the most salient remedy.

A couple of weeks ago, Steve said that he thought there would be gas riots by the end of the summer. While we haven't reached that point yet, we have reached the point where people are prostituting themselves for gas money, including one incident that involved someone getting stabbed with scissors.

The situation is far more dire in Cameroon, where the people have rioted in the streets against their government's policies on gas and food. It is a place where cabbies often leave their cars sitting immobile until they can scrape together more money through other means in order to afford more gas.

We feel like the cost of our gas is so very painful, but we can put things into perspective if we look at the price of gas in Europe. Our gas is cheap compared to other countries. And while Europe offers a quality of life and an income similar to America, the people of many other countries are paying a ridiculous percentage of their income to buy gas, since wages are lower but gas costs remain the same or higher.

But how long can we continue behaving the way we have before we find ourselves in similarly dire straits?

Some of the people looking at Rowan's car have said they are interested, but they want to sell their current vehicles first. But with gas at its current price and rising, who is going to buy a vehicle that gets 10 mpg?

These people are somewhat trapped in their current circumstances by their previous short-sighted behaviors.

Their situations are not so different than what has happened to our country. Unlike other places in the world, we have sufficient space that has allowed for mass exoduses from the cities into the suburbs. Ironically, in an age where we have used technology to bring us intellectually closer together, we have tried to physically separate ourselves. We have failed to build a superior public transit infrastructure, and we have failed to fully utilize the infrastructure we have, also partly due to some need for physical independence.

Perhaps the current administration has failed us by not pushing through legislation to require automotive makers to develop vehicles with higher gas mileage, but it isn't the government that is buying all of the gas guzzlers.

And now these previous actions, which were allowed and encouraged by a strong economy and low fuel costs, are coming back to haunt us and are not easily remedied.

Some people want the government to step in and save us from the high gas prices. McCain, among others, has advocated for the idea of a gas tax "holiday" for the summer. But even if this holiday was extended for a full year or more, the idea is stupid because its effects would be minimal. The politicians are proposing an 18-cent-per-gallon cut in taxes. The average American drives 12,000 miles a year. If we use 20 mpg as an average of efficiency, the average American uses 600 gallons of gas a year. A savings of $0.18 a gallon equals $108 a year. However, the program would only run for the summer, meaning everyone would save less than $30, but at a cost of about $10 billion to the nation. Like the economic stimulus checks, it is moderate relief for us, but a giant tax on our children and our future.

The government can only affect prices so much, and the answer to the problem of rising gas prices is a riddle worthy of the sphinx. There are not simple answers since there are so many factors involved, factors as far-ranging as insurgents in the Niger delta.

The price of oil, like the price of most commodities, is regulated by the much discussed and recognized laws of supply and demand. But part of the problem with thinking about oil in this way is that no one is really sure how big the supply is. We are dealing with a problem we don't fully understand.

Instead of wishing for lower gas prices or waiting for the government to wave its long-sought magic wand, we need to change our behaviors. We need to make ourselves less reliant on fuel, instead of waiting around for others to make the change.

Joseph Romm points out that only 27 percent of Republicans believe that humans are the cause of global warming. (I don't mean to attack conservatives here; I just think Romm makes a good point starting from the use of this bit of information.) The main concern he finds with this statistic is that "if you don't believe humans are the cause of global warming, you're not going to believe that humans are the solution to global warming." If someone doesn't think his or her vehicle is harming the environment, there is less impetus to change behavior.

We like our rights here in America. I have the right to drive my giant vehicle if I want, and while some of my neighbors might leer, the government will not even give me a small glance. However, as Romm states, "if we hold off today on government action, we will almost guarantee the need for extreme and intrusive government action in the future." If we don't make changes, or push the government to enforce changes, we'll find ourselves in a position where we don't have the ability to choose for ourselves.

We can blame Bush and the GOP all we want for our problems, but Daniel Gross contends that a changing of Presidents will not bring immediate change to our hurting economy. Gross does make the point that while new Presidents don't immediately affect the economy, they can affect our perceptions of the economy. This can lead to dangerous thinking, I believe, since our nation's perceptions of infallibility have perhaps led us to our current state of affairs. We so often feel that there are obvious solutions to our problems.

If we think a change in government is going to fix all of our problems, our personal burden to change is removed. We need to realize that each of us needs to do our part. I know that sounds old-fashioned and quaint, but in this situation I think it's true.

Thinking back on Rowan's attempts to sell her car, the image of the woman and her child and their Yukon sticks in my head. She wanted to save money now, but I think the real savings are in the quality of life for her child when she grows up. But do people think about this? As I've discussed before, people don't act for the greater good, they act for themselves. But whatever creates action is, on some level, good, I suppose.

There has been a lighter side to the situation, as it provides another launching point for the humor-inclined among us. For example, the Onion reports that "98% of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others." As long as we can laugh about the situation, things are not that bad yet.

And not all of the fallout from the gas "crisis" has been negative, some people argue. Some of our behaviors have been changing, such as some companies offering four-day work-weeks to save a day of commuter's gasoline. We need to take these stepping stones and keep moving forward. To quote Tupac, who I'm sure would be driving a bio-diesel Escalade if he were alive, "You see, the old way wasn't working, so it's on us to do what we gotta do, to survive."

Garrison Keillor recently wrote an essay titled "For the sake of the girl with the beautiful swing." He is wandering through a small town and stops to watch an in-progress Little League game. He finds himself seated next to the father of the only girl in the game. The two men talk, and Keillor learns how the father feels about his daughter: "here is his girl taking a big lead off third base and he loves her so beautifully and unabashedly and wants the world to be there for her when it comes her time to fly."

Keillor feels that our President has let us down, and he hopes that, "for the sake of the girl with the beautiful swing," our next President is better.

But it isn't just the President who must be better. Fourth of July has come and passed, and even Will Smith hasn't saved us. I have not seen Hancock yet, but I think we can take a lot from a quote from the eponymous hero: "You deserve better from me. I can be better. I will be better."

It's a mantra we should all adopt.

We must all be better, for the sake of the future, for the sake of that girl with the beautiful swing, for the sake of that person across from you at the gas pump.

For the sake of that girl still riding in the back of the Yukon.

And, yes, for ourselves.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

What do the jeans mean?

My lease on the house is up in a couple of days, so I've been cleaning out the room.

I found an American Eagle shopping bag which I thought would be useful for hauling clothes that I will sell at the rummage sale out to the garage.

When I opened the bag, I found a receipt. On closer inspection, I found that the receipt was for the jeans I was currently wearing. On even closer inspection, I found that I had purchased the jeans on this very day one year ago.

What does it mean or foretell? Does this divulge some imminent danger to my denim? Does it portend or presage some peril to my pants? Some jeopardy to my jeans?

Or something else entirely?

Only time will tell.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lacan at the bat

With the NBA finals now behind us, I began wondering about why I don't write more often about sports (aside from brief asides about Steve calling me autistic and a lengthy examination of Barry Bonds and Roger Maris).

Sports fascinate me, and a large number of other people, but I can't really put my finger on why.

Part of my fascination with sports relates to me being a stat geek; I like how the world can be ordered into numbers, and sports thrive on numeric representations of reality, an objectification of the subjective.

But perhaps my larger fascination is with the concept of potential, and how rarely it is actually fulfilled. Kevin Garnett is one of my favorite players, but as good as he has been, he has never been the player I wanted him to be. In 1995 Garnett dominated the high school All-American game (brought to you by McDonald's, of course), showing a shot and a handle that were alien to other big men.

I wanted him to be something we had never seen before, a seven-foot shooting guard. But somehow he settled in at power forward. Other players came along that had potential to be this hypothetical creature, the really tall shooting guard, but Lamar Odom also became a power forward and Tim Thomas ended up sucking.

Magic Johnson, who dominated before all these other guys came along, seems to fit the bill, but he was a completely unique entity, not a prototypical guard stretched to a ridiculous length. Still, it was that uniqueness that has made him an enduring enigma.

While I have an appreciation for the players who are truly unique, like LeBron and the Big O (Oscar Robertson, not Oliver Miller) and the long forgotten Fat Lever, I have a larger appreciation for players who sort of fit some preconceived notion but are slightly atypical. For example, Charles Barkley is on some levels a prototype power forward: he could post up and was a rebounding machine. But he was also fat and shorter than some of his shooting guards, like Dan Majerle. He both fits and transcends (or perhaps mutates) his position with the game.

I truly believe that sports can offer some degree of insight into the human condition, such as in some of the writings of David Halberstam. All attempts to translate sport into some higher definition fascinate me, even when they are written quickly and fall short of their own substantial potential (perhaps not unlike this post you are currently reading). Hence my fascination with some of the more esoteric sports bloggers.

FreeDarko is a basketball blog that seeks to expand on sports as some way of achieving cultural understanding. They work from an initial ethos of "liberated fandom," a concept where sports are appreciated on all merits, not just wins and losses. For example, we can appreciate Lamar Odom for the fact that he is a unique player, though not necessarily a great player. They believe in an appreciation of form and style more so than specific outcomes. Awhile back they had a post where they compare Kobe to Jay Gatsby. They define what makes basketball players either bourgeois or proletariat in relationship to the basketball world, integrating factors such as race and athleticism. While it isn't technically brilliant writing, the ideas intrigue me.

I like finding links between concepts that seemingly have nothing in common, such as sports and life in general. And I think this idea helps to explain why so many people are fascinated with sports. Deep down, we feel that they somehow reflect life, or some imagined pseudo-reality, and we draw ourselves in more deeply as we try to understand this perceived reflection. Perhaps in sports we see some sort of refereed order we have difficulty finding in our own lives.

Also, sports can help us deal with our own misgivings about our own failed potential. On any given day, a mediocre player can be as good as a great player (Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall share the record for 3-pointers in a single game). We like to feel that these bursts of brilliance may be possible in our own lives.

And like the singular pulse of one performance, we are fascinated by the idea that a player can just pull it all together for an anomalous prolonged streak, like when Brady Anderson, who otherwise never hit more than 24 homers in a season, jacked 50 in a year (though some wonder if steroids might have been a factor). We may be mediocre in life, but perhaps this year is the year. It all comes back to that concept of realized and unrealized potential.

There may be some degree of evolutionary respect that leads to our love of sports, but I don't think primal urges fully explain our passions. I was discussing this concept with Katy the other night. If sports are only a manifestation of long-gone unsheltered survivalist days, we would be most fascinated by sports such as sprinting and swimming, sports that require minimal equipment and echo time-treasured physical needs, such as the ability to escape some angry animal or catch some other tasty animal.

But most people's favorite sports, such as futbol and basketball, are largely mental constructs. Physicality plays a role, but only as it intertwines with defined skills. Perhaps this reflects some sort of human need to order the world into strict rules.

Of course, I've skipped over the idea of pure enjoyability here, such as lazing in the sun on a summer afternoon while drinking a beer and watching people whom I have no personal connection to swinging chunks of tree at clumps of cow hide.

But I believe, or want to believe, that for most people it goes beyond that. And for those who write about sports, the act of writing allows them to elevate these games, for both themselves and their readers, beyond a plane of simple entertainment. On some level, the simple application of words applies meaning.

As for myself, though--as a man who apparently does see some larger meaning in sports--why don't I write about them? Sports, with their numbers and rules, are built upon a world of specificity, a specificity that perhaps I don't want to embrace in my writing. It is much harder to transform the concrete into the abstract than the abstract into the abstract. Perhaps I'm too lazy or lack the insight to create such transitions. Or maybe I just drink too much when I watch sports, and lose the meaning I thought I saw.

Also, the permanency of writing plays a part. As sports statistics are recorded for posterity, so are the words we commit to paper or cyberspace. No one wants to be thought of as the Mario Mendoza of writing. We are scared of waving our pens in the air and going down swinging.

In the same way that a baseball player can choose whether or not to swing at a pitch, we choose whether or not to write about something. The best hitters often don't force the issue, they let the game come to them. Perhaps I have yet to see the right pitch.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In which I develop dyspepsia

Lately, my speech has been assuming dyslexic or aphasic tendencies. I've been subconsciously substituting the wrong words into my conversation.

For example, the other day Rowan was wearing a crocheted shirt. I described it as croqueted.

I said two people were in "cohorts" when I meant "cahoots."

I've been mixing up numbers, such as saying "seven" when I mean "eleven."

These slips have been frequent enough that other people have noticed. I hope it's not a tumor.


I had another one of those weird moments where I got antagonistic with a co-worker.

My boss said she felt like beer and chips. She knew we had beer in the fridge, and I informed her that we also had chips.

"No we don't," one of my co-workers chirped.

"Yes we do," I responded.

"No we don't," she said again.

"Yes we do," I countered. "I can see them from where I'm standing. They are right there." I pointed emphatically toward the kitchen. "I can show them to you if you want."

She still didn't seem to believe me.

Later, as I was working quietly, another co-worker suddenly said, with no provocation, "I can see them from where I'm standing," and began to giggle. This action made me realize how absurd the earlier exchange was.

At the end of the day, I was getting ready to head to physical therapy, where they would put me in the traction machine. I told my co-workers I was off to therapy.

"Talk therapy?" the woman I had spoken words with earlier asked. I don't know if she was joking or trying to say I need emotional help.

What I really need, I think, is for people to believe me when I tell them things. Except when I mess the words up and it doesn't make sense.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday, Yay! The 13th, not so Yay.

I did some guest-blogging over at Mixed Cookies. Check out the link over to the right of the page. It's a music blog, and I go in-depth about the mix I made for the trip to Anchorage. Delightful stuff, really. I don't know about that picture that leads the thing off, though.

Next, I've dug into the archives to bring back a post from a Friday the 13th past. Enjoy.

Have you practiced your skills against the dark arts lately?

I was sitting at my desk this morning, doing my usual drone-like labor, when I realized it was Friday the 13th (F13 from here on out). I don't recall ever having anything bad happen to me on F13, but if there is a year for this to happen, it's this year. However, my boss did just give us the okay to leave an hour-and-a-half early, so the day has actually started quite nicely. My brother has always proclaimed he encounters bad luck on Monday the 20th, but that just seems foolish.

So many people have a fear of F13 that it is a named phobia: these individuals are referred to as paraskevidekatriaphobics. Not all cultures find the number 13 to be unlucky; the Chinese and ancient Egyptians considered it to bode good fortune. Still, it is estimated that 8% of the population has a fear of F13.

Several theories exist about why 13 is considered unlucky (triskaidekaphobes are those who fear the number):

It is the average number of menstrual cycles most females have in a year; male dominated society had an odd distaste for all things feminine.

In Norse myth, 12 gods were invited to a banquet. Loki wasn't invited and then proceeded to whup some ass in retributition. (Actually, Loki wasn't much of an ass-whupper. He talked the others into beating the shit out of each other.)

Judas was the 13th guest at the last supper.

I began thinking about the whole 13 thing, and came up with a theory that part of the myth may have to do with the fact that 13 is a prime number--rare and therefore meant to be feared. I couldn't find any reference to folks who have a fear of prime numbers, but did encounter some other interesting numerical oddities and other random facts:

The sum of primes up to and including 13 is equal to the 13th prime.

Thirteen is the smallest absolute prime; that is, if you have multiple digits and move them around, you still have a prime number (31).

The sum of the remainders when 13 is divided by all the primes up to 13, equals 13.

There is no elliptic curve over the rationals Q having a rational point of order 13. (I have no idea what this means.)

The number of the beast first appears in the 13th chapter of Revelations.

The longest recorded flight of a chicken is 13 seconds.

Maybe these tidbits aren't so enlightening for the discussion at hand, but interesting nonetheless. Now for the examination of our fear of Friday:

The crucifixion supposedly took place on a Friday, and Adam supposedly tempted Eve with an apple on Friday.

Friday was execution day in some societies, but was the Sabbath in others.

As far as the whole fear of femininity thing, Friday is named after Freya, Norse goddess of fertility.

As for why the combination of the two is extremely unlucky, there is debate. Obviously, if you take one unlucky concept and combine it with another unlucky concept, you get a very unlucky concept.

Some folks attribute the date to the decimation of the Knights Templar (brought into common knowledge by Dan Brown; grrrrrr), which occurred on October 13, 1307, which was a Friday. However, many point out that this is a pretty obscure event to lead to such a widespread superstition.

Some folks believe that Cain killed Abel on F13. However, this just seems dumb because we didn't have the standard calendar then, and why would we attribute a date named for a Norse goddess to a Biblical event?

So the truth is that we really don't know. Enjoy your day, and I will try to send some good vibes your way.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"The cool thing about strippers is that they're sorta like robots."

We have returned from Anchorage unscathed and slightly poorer. Anchorage remains as it was, having survived our onslaught.

The first night, we ended up at Humpy's despite Steve's earlier proclamations that he did not want to go to Humpy's at all during the trip. Tequila was shot, beers were drank, cookies were tossed, events were later recounted in the passive voice. (I know I've used that last line before, but I like it. So there.)

We were hungover enough the next evening that we didn't go out. But we did go to the mall during the day. I bought two shirts on clearance, which made me happy. It felt nice to act urban again.

I also kicked Steve's ass at frolf, and he restrained himself from calling me autistic.

Both Saturday and Sunday we did breakfast at Snow City Cafe. I love that place, despite their crazy long wait for a table. I bought a day-old discount cupcake that I then gave to Rowan two days later. The cake was not so good, but she did enjoy the frosting.

Sunday night we went to Glacier Brewhouse. The food was excellent, and allowed us to feel moderately upscale before we went to ABC (the Great Alaskan Bush Company, for those not in the know), which is most definitely not upscale.

I have never before been to a strip club without a pole for the dancers to use. This peculiarity left me considerably disappointed. However, there was no cover charge and the beer was reasonably priced, so the excursion was not a complete loss. The naked women helped, too.

(Please note that I do not seek to objectify women or, in the words of a drunk Dude, "treat objects like women, man." I just occasionally like to appease my base desires. If it was socially acceptable, I would walk around nude. Those who know me know that this statement should not be doubted.)

The trip back was uneventful, though I was a little nervous about eating a several-day-old discounted turkey and American croissant that I bought at the Cantwell gas station.


As I was making the music mixes for the trip, Steve asked me if I was going to include any Faith No More. I didn't, but he included "Epic" on his mix. He then proceeded to use this word as much as possible throughout the trip. We even coffeed up at Epic Espresso on the ride back. When he returned to work at the library on Tuesday, the first book that came across his desk was titled Epic.

Was our trip epic? Most likely not, depending on most accepted definitions of the word. However, the traditional epics grew from acts of constant retelling. So in time, perhaps, the trip will be epic.

But most likely, it will just be remembered occasionally over beers. And I'm alright with that.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Life is a highway

I made it through the week without insulting anybody (that I'm aware of), possibly due in part to the fact that my brain has felt like a pile of zombie goo for the past four days. Maybe it's spring, maybe I'm just tired, or maybe it's the ridiculous amounts of Bun on the Run creme de menthe brownies I've consumed in the last couple of days.

I was dragging so much on Wednesday that I went over to the Tesoro to get an ICEE. There were no men purchasing ICEEs at that moment, but there was a gaggle of four high school girls. I felt uncomfortably feminine standing there amongst them filling my cup in differently flavored layers of iced fluffy goodness. And then I felt extremely twitchy for the next two hours. I think I've been working in a male-free atmosphere for too long.

Tomorrow, Steve and I head south for a nice long weekend of not being in Fairbanks. I burned a couple of music mixes for the ride, much to Steve's dread, I am sure. Hopefully, adventure will ensue.

Lastly, I will quote Homer Simpson, as I like to do when leaving the 'banks: "So long, SuckTown!"

Monday, June 2, 2008

I got an ultrasound yesterday

No, I'm not pregnant.

But I am doing my best to turn into my father. I've sported a mustache occasionally. The woman informs me that my back hair seems to be filling in, which is disturbing on several levels. And now the back beneath that hair is rapidly breaking down.

After a week of intense agony triggered in part by 15 miles of canoeing over the holiday weekend, I visited a physical therapist. She did not give me any specific reason for my back pain, instead pointing to potential aggravating factors, such as my desk job, that my upper back slopes more forward than it should (making me more at risk for back pain), and that it seems as if my upper vertebrae are collapsing on their cartilage.

This is all very troubling information to me, since my father has had cartilage removed from his back and five vertebrae fused together. His back does not generally feel good.

The therapist then ran an ultrasound machine over the afflicted area, saying something like "the deep pulsing waves will help relieve tension." It sounded very scientific yet new-agey at the same time, which did not provide me with much mental comfort, or, as I've determined a day later, physical comfort.

Still, I am sure the pain I am currently feeling is much less than the pain endured by those individuals who choose to pass a living person through their lower regions.


Slate, an online magazine owned by the Washington Post, is one of my favorite websites. It covers a range of topics, including art, entertainment, science, and politics. It even offers a weekly poem, which is obviously of interest to this barely-practicing refugee from the fine arts establishment. In my humble opinion, a lot of the poems published in Slate suck, or are at least fairly unapproachable. They are chosen by Robert Pinsky, who, from what I have read of his recent musings on poetry, is a pretentious prick and one of the reasons why the masses don't give a shit about poetry. (Check out his terse and completely useless responses to "Frequently asked questions about the business of verse.")

But this week's poem, "The Names" by Joe Wilkins, moved me. Maybe the people in it and the landscapes described struck me as Midwestern somehow, opening up some deep-seated ache for home. But it also reminded me of the song "We can't make it here," which I've written about previously.

The closing lines from "The Names":

...This country I call home is, like yours,
lost, and my people too are lost, like me,

so let me hate with them, let me sit up at the bar,
and curse the banker, the goddamn-silly-designer chaps
the new boss man from back east wears,
let me speak the names of the dead and get righteous,
for at least one more round.

On the surface, the poem is about remembering the people from the author's childhood who have died. The poem also clearly deals with socio-economic issues. But I can't help but feel a certain pointed politcal undertone as well.

I only talk politics when I've been drinking, and even then I don't have enough convincing information to back up my beliefs. But sometimes it feels good to get righteous, and Wilkins speaks to that, which in turn speaks to me. There is something cathartic about a rant, especially the unfocused, wandering, tangential, stream-of-conciousness rant, and in tough times, who couldn't use a little catharsis? As Wilkins says, "It's easy,/ and some days easy's what I need."


The other day, the boss lady took us out for ice cream. Most of the crew ordered sundaes. As she ate her maraschino, one of my co-workers said, "Look, I've got the proverbial cherry on top."

"No. No you don't," I replied sternly.

"What?" She seemed confused.

"You don't have the proverbial cherry."

"What do you mean?"

"It's a real cherry. There's nothing proverbial about it. The cherry is actually there. I saw it."

Later, while telling the story to Rowan, I started to feel bad. This was the same woman whom I went nuts on when she claimed that "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins was actually about a man drowning.

I heard her make this claim from my office, and started shouting, "No, no, no. Not true. Not true!"

Sometimes, I just can't stop myself from being an asshole. And sometimes that bothers me, but I guess it's part of who I am.


Also, being the hard-living rocker that I am, I really like the Nonpoint version.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

At the mercy of the river wild

The Chatanika churned past our campsite on the bank. Steve and I carried the canoe about thirty yards upriver to where a gravel bar provided easy entry. We climbed in, pushed off, and were immediately carried directly towards a clump of low-hanging branches: a sweeper, in river terminology.

I leaned back as if I was doing the limbo and tried to push the canoe away from the trees as the branches overtook me, but the water was too swift. The front of the canoe was driven under the water, and then the canoe flipped.

We plunged into a river so cold that, a little ways upstream, snow still lined the banks.

I popped my head out of the water and looked back for Steve. He was still under, and stayed under for what seemed like an agonizingly long time before his body also broke the surface.

We were shoulder deep in the river as we tried to lift the canoe. The suction of the canoe against the water held it tight to the surface as the flow continued to push us downstream.

My entire body moved as my sandal stayed in place. "Fuck!" I shouted. "I'm losing my shoe!"

My jaw was so cold the words came out like I was having a stroke.

"Leave it!" Steve shouted back.

"Throw that fucking paddle on the shore before it gets swept away!" I replied. The words sounded strange in my head.

We were right next to our campsite; this was the shortest canoe trip ever.

"Katy, throw more wood on the fire!" Steve yelled.

Somehow, we were able to drag ourselves and the canoe from the river. Steve was struck by a bout of laughing. Deja paced nervously. Katy stirred the fire to life. I stripped naked and searched for dry clothes, walking around in one sandal.


Despite those struggles, the next day we decided to put in eleven miles upriver. Around the second bend, we hit a half-submerged clump of trees. We took in water but didn't flip, as the current held us in place against the timber. We struggled for five minutes before we were able to pull free. This is going to be the worst canoe trip ever, I thought, but the rest of the trip went without incident.


Overall, the vacation was nice. We played frisbee and catch with the baseball, roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire, and performed group sing-alongs of all the tunes we could remember.

We were continually visited by a native guy camping further down the river; he informed us that he was there for a week celebrating his birthday. We never saw him sober. His name was Seymour; he informed us that everyone called him "See-More Butts," including his numerous girlfriends. One of his exes had borrowed twenty dollars from him to buy him booze for his birthday. We learned later from his sister that he also had the nickname "Skidmarks." He once wiped out on his bike while drunk.

Some military types near us kept firing guns. This lead Deja to act somewhat erractically, even after the gunfire subsided. At one point, she stood balancing on a log, back curved, all of her feet within inches of each other. "That's it," Steve said. "She's lost it. My dog has gone insane."


Overall, the weekend was quite enjoyable. But it had to end eventually. And a shower never felt so good.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Life is good

In twenty minutes (12:45) the boss lady is letting us out of work early to go to Big Daddy's for barbecue and beer.

Then I will go rent a canoe for the long weekend.

It's a rough life I live, I know. Hopefully, my cohorts and I don't go all Alexander Supertramp this weekend.


When Rowan and I were discussing American Idol, Rowan referred to David Archuleta as David Enchilada, which prompted me to say that I hoped Enchilada would get Cooked, which he did. Long live rock!

Monday, May 19, 2008

The savant frolfs with the good doctor

Last year while playing basketball, one of my friends, for some reason, called me autistic.

This year while frisbee golfing, or frolfing, that same friend made a reference to the Lethal Weapon movies, which I have never seen, which I admitted.

"I guess I'm just culturally retarded," I said.

"I think you're more culturally autistic," he said.

I had never heard the phrase "cultural autism" before. However, it seems to get thrown around a lot but rarely defined (just google the phrase). Some folks seem to use it almost interchangeably with the standard DSM definition of autism, except using it as a limiter relating to only the interpersonal manifestations of the disease. Others use it in a cross-cultural context, relating to those people who are unaware of the cultural norms of other places, such as stupid tourists.

My own definition, at least in the context of what I think my friend was hinting at, would probably be something like this: "an inability to engage with the the popular culture by which one is surrounded." I think this parallels the definition of actual autism: some autistic individuals are extremely intelligent, but lack the ability to interact with the world in a normal way.

So, am I culturally autistic, or autistic in any way?

No. I just haven't seen Lethal Weapon. I was busy doing other stuff. Very important stuff, I am sure.

Also, I am not incapable of properly engaging with others in a social context, I just don't want to, because I hate people.

I do not know why my friend keeps "diagnosing" me as autistic. Perhaps he has some weird pathology of his own that he tries to transfer on to me.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must stop typing so that I can rock repetitively back and forth in my office chair.

Friday, May 16, 2008

My song of the spring: four years later, has anything changed?

I popped a CD into the Jeep's player over a week ago, a CD that my brother burned for me a couple years back. The last song is "We can't make it here" by James McMurtry.

(The video is an acoustic performance; check YouTube for some fan-made videos of the more rockin' study version.)

I've been listening to the song repeatedly. It's from 2004 and depicts a crumbling economy and the ongoing battle between big business (the "man," so to speak) and the working poor, set against the backdrop of a war nobody wants. Four years later, does this still sound familiar?

At one point in the song, McMurtry examines class separation, and calls out the business owners who have been outsourcing our economy:

I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily white and squeaky clean
They’ve never known want, they’ll never know need
Their shit don’t stink and their kids won’t bleed
Their kids won’t bleed in their damn little war
And we can’t make it here anymore

Will work for food, will die for oil
Will kill for power and to us the spoils
The billionaires get to pay less tax
The working poor get to fall through the cracks
So let ‘em eat jellybeans let ‘em eat cake
Let ‘em eat shit, whatever it takes
They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps
If they can’t make it here anymore

The song portrays a separitist mentality, but the fact is that we have an ever-widening class gap in this country.

It reminds me of the scene in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 (which I hated, by the way; it seemed too much like biased propaganda) where he asks senators and other "important" folk if they would send their children to fight overseas.

McMurtry has little use for metaphor, and instead whacks you over the head with bluntness. But I like bluntness. It's easier to "get." I'm a busy man; I don't have time to search for meaning.

The song rouses something in me, and I'm not sure why.

Growing up on a farm, economic hardship was just a poor season away. But weather is something beyond man's control. When things failed, there was rarely someone specific to blame.

In McMurtry's world, and in places such as Moore's beloved Flint, MI, economic hardships are the result of decisions by people at the top of a hierarchical structure, a structure which implies some culpability for those at the top for the struggles of those at the bottom.

The sad thing is that our country has the resources to provide for all of its people. But somehow we manage to fall short.

Maybe our government is failing the lower to lower-middle classes, but I suppose it is doing something. We got our stimulus checks. That will make everything okay! Or at least shut me up for a while.


This morning I woke up to the alarm clock going off and found myself talking out loud. "You're so very confused!" I practically shouted as I sat upright. I looked around, saw that I was in the bedroom, and realized that I was now the confused one. I have no idea what I was dreaming about.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Don't let your babies grow up to be...

I've been dogsitting this week at a house not too distant from my place of employment, allowing me to partake of eco-friendly transportation methods such as walking and biking. The Jeep has not moved in three days.

The other day while ambling slowly home, I passed a yard where a large group of kids ran around, kicking balls and chasing each other. It was an almost utopian scene: a mix of boys and girls, several races, kids varying in age by a half-decade or more, all getting along and all seemingly happy.

When I was nearly past this scene, the sound of a man yelling made my head turn.

"Did you wear makeup to school today?" he shouted at a girl I assumed to be his daughter, and who looked, to me, to be about eleven years old. "Don't lie to me. I heard about you. If you do it again, I'll beat your ass."

While I don't advocate the beating of any child's ass (though some might argue that it worked for earlier generations), I felt a twinge of sympathy for the man. I don't know what it's like to raise a child, but I can't imagine it's easy.

Recently, the Boston Globe published an article on single-sex classrooms. The idea of segregating boys from girls has a lot to do with the theory that the sexes have different learning styles.

But the line that most caught my eye was this:

Enter the flirt-free zone at the Mario Umana Middle School Academy in East Boston, one of the few public schools in the state experimenting with single-sex classes as a way to tame raging hormones, refocus students on their studies, and begin addressing a worsening achievement gap between boys and girls.

Boys still will be boys - and launch their paper planes - but their antics have toned down, teachers said. Girls have stopped preening in class.

Perhaps the difference is not so much learning styles, but the fact that young minds drift elsewhere.

This is where I could leap into a diatribe about the oversexualization of our culture and how it affects younger and younger children, and how our technologically "advanced" culture is physically causing this earlier sexualization.

But we've heard it all before.

I'm at the age where I am questioning the biological imperative of fatherhood. The answers divide themselves:

If I answer no, I must realize that it is a decision that is not completely my own.

If I answer yes, I also have to deal with the same concern as above, but a new question arises: When?

If I decide to have a child, I want to have it before the baby-making process goes all Gattaca on me. And this potential reality is getting a little too close for the comfort of some of us.

And the thought of bringing a child into this current world mildly terrifies me. I feel like an old geezer when I say it, but the world seems less safe than it did when I was a child, and I don't know how much of that is my changing perspective or a changing world.

And what if the child was somehow different, with mental, physical, or emotional problems? Am I strong enough to deal with that?

The last several times that I called my brother, I was struck by how much my brother's voice sounds like my father's. And when I see some of the pictures I have of myself with a mustache, I realize that there is no doubt that this apple did not fall far from the tree (my dad has had a mustache for the last forty years).

One of the weird things about being a parent, I would think, is that our children are, in a way, us. If we fail them, we fail ourselves. And how can anyone deal with that?

Just some thoughts to consider as we linger in that time after Mother's Day and before Father's Day.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Mother's day: sentimentality is acceptable

In a gift-giving transaction more mainstream than I normally like to operate, I am sending my mother chocolate for Mother's Day. (I am also giving her a fancier gift, but that only involves me sending my brother money and him taking care of things, since he is older and therefore more capable of such endeavors.) The chocolates have centers made from real Alaskan wildberries, so that's cool, since my mom will probably like the idea of it.

But as I was purchasing the candies, I realized that I really have no idea whether or not my mother even likes chocolate. We always had a bowl of miniature candy bars sitting on the kitchen counter, but I think these were more for my stepfather.

So many years living with and knowing the woman, and I don't even know this somewhat basic detail.

When I went to the post office to send the chocolates, the graying old hippy with long hair and the worst teeth I've ever seen told me I needed a haircut. He didn't seem to be joking. Why would he say such a thing? Not even my mother tells me that.

Garrison Keilor has written a wonderful ode to Mother's Day. He makes many strikingly relevant insights:
Mothers were, at one time, young women with Possibilities who might have taken a different route and become glamorous and powerful figures in Size 2 dresses and instead found themselves cleaning up excrement and jiggling colicky babies to get them to stop screaming. They hardly ever get to London anymore or have time to read James Joyce. They sit down to dinner with adults and feel brain-dead. A bouquet of flowers hardly seems compensation enough. How about a million dollars and a house in the south of France?
He's right. How can I think chocolates, even Alaskan chocolates, are enough?

And I can't help but wonder if my mother's life would have turned out differently if she hadn't become a mother.

Keillor muses that his mother
might've modeled evening gowns at Dayton's Sky Room and maybe been spotted by a Hollywood scout and wound up in pictures, playing the village girl who charms the world-weary tycoon stranded in Littleville by the blizzard. Instead, she became a suburban pioneer, making a home in a muddy cornfield, putting up the stewed tomatoes and canned beans every fall, raising six children, slogging through bouts of mumps and flu, whomping up big Christmases, fishing the laundry out of the washing machine and putting it through the wringer and hanging it on the line.
Though I do not know whether my mother likes chocolate and I cannot know how her life would have been different without me, I can rest soundly in my belief that she was a woman who loved being a mother. She was always there, always, and not once did I hear her complain about how life could have been.

She deserves thanks every day. Keillor writes, "You entered this cold world causing her more pain than she thought possible and now she won't ever give up on you." And he's right.

I don't call or write as much as I should. But she knows how I feel.

And if she doesn't, I'm sure those Alaskan chocolates will clue her in. I even sent a card. It's big and unfolds into multiple pages, because more pages equal more love. And it rhymes, because rhymes are the language of love.

I know it isn't enough, and can't be enough, but because she is a good mother, it somehow is.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Selfishness and groupthink working together to save the world

In my previous post, I ranted somewhat incoherently about balances between quality of life, economics, and the environment, closing with the line, “I’ll try to help myself for now. Saving the world, that will have to wait for later.”

In his article “Let’s dump ‘Earth Day,’” Joseph Romm takes a view that directly relates to my own sentiments.

Romm feels that we need to focus more on human life and less on the rest of the world around us. Saving the world is difficult and daunting; we need to focus more on ourselves.

Although his article begins somewhat satirically, his point becomes clear early: “If humans are special, invested with a soul by our Creator, along with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then why should we sacrifice even a minute of that pursuit worrying about the inferior species?”

The problem with a lot of the rhetoric surrounding environmentalism—and the reason why so much of it is not effective—is, as Romm says, because such language creates “the misleading perception that the cause so many of us are fighting for—sharp cuts in greenhouse gases—is based on the desire to preserve something inhuman or abstract or far away.”

Romm feels that the name “Earth Day” is too broad and focuses on too esoteric of a concept. While saving the Earth and all of its flora and fauna is a noble cause, it isn’t a concept that pushes enough people to act. Romm writes:
What the day—indeed, the whole year—should be about is not creating misery upon misery for our children and their children and their children, and on and on for generations. Ultimately, stopping climate change is not about preserving the earth or creation but about preserving ourselves. Yes, we can't preserve ourselves if we don't preserve a livable climate, and we can't preserve a livable climate if we don't preserve the earth. But the focus needs to stay on the health and well-being of billions of humans because, ultimately, humans are the ones who will experience the most prolonged suffering. And if enough people come to see it that way, we have a chance of avoiding the worst.
He advocates a change in the name of Earth Day to place the focus on action that is more tangible and attainable.

While many of us like to believe that we adhere to high ideals, there is a large gap between belief and action. And what actually motivates us to action is often not what we would like to believe about ourselves.

In this past Sunday’s News-Miner, Judith Kleinfeld looks at a study where doorknob hangers were placed on people’s front doors. There were four different messages hung on the doors:
1. “You save money by conserving energy”
2. “You can save the Earth’s resources by conserving energy”
3. “Socially responsible citizens conserve energy”
4. “Most of your neighbors try regularly to conserve energy”
Later, the residents were surveyed to see which ones took action to conserve energy. The winner, the one with the greatest number of residents taking action, was number 4. While this shows a disturbing presence of Orwellian groupthink, it is another example of how ideology doesn’t inspire action.

According to Kleinfeld, “If we are serious about getting people to protect the environment, we need to go beyond public information campaigns and moralistic messages.”

The answer to our problems, it seems, is a healthy level of selfishness pared with an equal dose of cultural adherence. While such a suggestion may not shine an overwhelmingly positive light on our culture, I don’t think it is surprising.

If we each take steps to save ourselves, others might see and follow. This way, my friends, we can create a movement, starting with—to steal the Army’s phrase, and the military is definitely a group that preaches its own form of cultural adherence—an army of one.

As philosopher Eric Hoffer believed, movements are started by individuals who are unhappy with themselves molding themselves after a leader, or “true believer,” and creating imaginary selves through which they achieve some level of self respect. As different individuals mold themselves in the same way, they create a group of similarly-minded imaginary selves, which can eventually become a movement based on the ideals of the imaginary selves, which through the sheer weight of belief becomes something real. Ideology is not reality, but action is.

I perhaps can’t change the world, but I can change myself. You should change yourself, as well. Everyone’s doing it, you know.

Friday, April 18, 2008

State of the bean-conomy

Yesterday I threw away an entire $4 bag of cut and washed green beans. I thought I’d try them as a healthy snack to keep at work. But I took it for granted that produce, especially such expensive produce, would last a week. But the best-by date was three days after I bought them. I ate one bag in the beginning of the week, and when I tore open the second bag I was greeted by a pile of green slime.

Such a minor occurrence, but it made me question my entire food philosophy: Why would I pay $4 for beans in the first place? Aren’t vegetables supposed to be cheap?

Food costs are rising rapidly, and I seem to have just realized that I am spending way too much on food.

I try to eat healthy, and that’s a problem, especially up here. My bag of beans, or my other favorite, sugar-snap peas, both run $1 a serving. I can buy an entire box of Twinkies for $1.50.

For a lot of us, life has been too comfortable for way too long. Several years ago, I ran myself down to zero, even into the negatives, since I had to borrow a couple hundred bucks from family. I was between jobs, but I wasn’t worried. Gainful, or at least needs-meeting, employment was just around the corner. Money was out there waiting to be made.

Other people used this same philosophy, buying standards such as houses and extras such as boats or second cars, all on credit because they expected the money to be there.

But then the subprime market collapsed and the rest of the economy started to fail too, as our battles overseas failed to keep gas prices down and food prices also started to rise, and Mexico started enforcing price limits on tortillas because they were getting too expensive because we were using too much corn to make gas, but even that didn’t keep gas prices down and we didn’t think through the other potential consequences enough. Even those houses that seemed so basic to our existence are now drifting beyond our means.

Heather Havrilesky, in the article “How I learned to stop worrying and love the recession,” looks at where we were seven years ago:

Sept. 11 was supposed to make us all more down-to-earth and more honorable— you know, the way World War II traumatized the so-called Greatest Generation enough to put down the bottle and stop beating up the little Mrs.? We were supposed to choose valiant, heartfelt, courageous paths, to give of ourselves like never before, to come together as a nation. Instead, most of us have spent the last seven years monitoring Nicole Richie's eating disorder. We haven't been volunteering or running for political office, we've been reorganizing our walk-in closets and talking on the phone about the ideal age to start Botox. As the economy soared, there were far too many options available to us, but we were all whiny and depressed over it nonetheless.
Gregg Easterbrook looks in-depth at the burdens of choice in his book The Progress Paradox. He examines how all the benefits available to us fail to make us happy. Now tough times loom and lives are falling apart. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but it is somewhat true.

Some of us try to be good to the world but we don’t want to move out of our comfortable suburban dwellings and into the city to be closer to the jobs in order to reduce our emissions. We drive our giant SUVs on our long commutes. We get to the office and try to pretend that the organic apple we eat as a snack every day is somehow changing the world.

I fall into the same category: I try, but what am I really accomplishing? I say I will start riding the bike to work, but I haven’t because it won’t stop snowing.

My latest and largest good environmental choice was buying re-usable grocery bags a couple weeks back. Wow.

But soon our choices on how we want to live our lives will be limited.

I would like to drive a hybrid vehicle, but I’ve decided I can’t even afford the vegetables I like. In the Havrilesky article mentioned above, she sets the frame of her discussion around buying dried beans at the grocery store, the only thing that seems affordable to her these days.

Some people are making choices not to eat only organic vegetables and fruits, but to only go organic on the most potentially harmful.

We are downplaying our beliefs to focus on self-preservation.

The stimulus checks are coming soon (I maintain that it is a bad idea, but that is a discussion for another time), and companies are trying to get their hands on that money, but fortunately in ways that help the consumer. But how many of us are going to put the money towards groceries? It seems to me that part of the idea of the stimulus is to push people back to the realm of overconsumption, so that people once again feel they can buy their $5-a-day Starbucks drink. But it may only push some people toward more of the poor choices that have put our country in a situation where we need stimulus checks.

Myself, I will spend that money abroad, as it will reach me around the time of the "big move." I’ve found myself tracking the dollar against the euro. It’s changed nine cents over the last several months, which has directly cost me well over $100 on my course fees overseas.

I mentioned to Rowan how strange it will be too watch our economy continue to crumble, but from a distance. To hear about friends and family barely getting by.

I will also know that my own savings, in American dollars, are shrinking in comparable worth as I try to get by in a strange country. But get by I will, because that’s what people do.

But for now, I will stare at my grocery list at try to make the best choices possible. I’ll buy a lot of bananas, because bananas are cheap. And already mushy, unlike the beans or apples that catch me by surprise.

I’ll try to help myself for now. Saving the world, that will have to wait for later.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Cops and Denny's

Somehow, I ended up at Denny's at about 11:30 on a Friday night for the second straight week. Both times, the folks that I was keeping company with were hungry and sit-down food sounded better than fast food. I suggested the Airport Way Family Diner, but Rowan proclaimed the place scary and dangerous. I have never been scared there, but I did once see a girl wearing an epileptic seizure helmet.

So we ended up at Denny's. Our waitress was older but spunky, initially commenting, with much sarcasm, how much she loved her job.

About halfway through our meal, I noticed a guy with a backpack go into the bathroom (I had a straight line of sight to the facilities from my seat). I thought the backpack was a little strange, but thought little more about it.

Until the cops showed up. I heard one of them ask the waitress if she had seen a guy in all black and a backpack. I interjected and pointed them to the restroom. They got the guy to open the door and then arrested him.

When we were paying our bill, one of the cashiers said something about the cops.

"Yeah, that was kinda crazy, huh?" I said.

"Not really," she replied. "Happens all the time. That's why we changed our weekend hours."

And Denny's had been our choice as a safe haven. I don't even want to think about what kind of shit went down at the family diner.

Anyway, once again I was able to uphold truth and justice, but this time I offered up my services for free. The hero's life, it's tough sometimes.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Channeling Mr. Wizard to save us from the Secret

Last week, I received perhaps the coolest email I have every received from the University list serve, when I was informed that the physics students would be shoving random stuff in a microwave to show people what happens. The items include a CD, incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs, a grape, a candle, Ivory soap, and an egg. The flier describes these actions as “unwise, marginally safe demonstrations.” This reminded me of Mr. Wizard, who was awesome. I wish they would bring that show back.


A recent article in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, titled “It’s Not You, It’s Your Books,” looks at relationships ending because of differing tastes in literature. Personally, I can’t think of any type of media that would be a deal-breaker for me, except maybe “The Secret,” which may be the most misguided ethos I’ve ever encountered. I really want Mr. Wizard to come back and debunk the whole Secret thing. Maybe he could drop Rhonda Byrne from a crane to demonstrate gravity or put her in a giant microwave and then watch her try to will herself out of it.

Anyway, the Times’ article is a pretty good read and does make some interesting points. Anyone out there ever ended a relationship because of different tastes in books?