Monday, November 05, 2012

How my home builder reminded me that voting is pointless

The timing couldn’t have been better.

I’d just finished a load of laundry and was taking it upstairs when I grasped hold of the railing on the basement steps, and felt it wiggle. Like a loose tooth, it felt as though one good yank would pull the sucker clean of the wall. Upon inspection, I saw further cracks in the drywall surrounding it, and up and down the walls leading to the ground floor.

Terrific, I thought. Add that to the drywall already crumbling on the second floor, the holes in the garage walls (cleverly concealed from the home inspector before we moved in), the drafty doors, the sagging fences, the leaky garage roof, the splintered paneling and the walls thin enough to allow us to hear the neighbors playing World of Warcraft at 10 p.m. on a worknight. Some of this stuff is doubtless normal wear and tear, but much of it is the result of shoddy construction, and all of it will have to wait until other repairs are done on the condo I’ve owned since 2005 and rented for years now since I can’t get rid of it in the current market. It's enough to get you to start drinking vodka in the morning. Except I already do, so I guess I can't blame the house. 

When I got back upstairs and checked the mail, still juggling figures in my head and trying to decide whether the drywall repair could wait until spring or not, I found a nondescript envelope bearing the title “voter” next to my name. When I opened it, it turned out to be a letter from my builder. Advising me on how to vote.

I won’t quote the letter, but the gist of it was that my builder, reminding me of his credentials as a small business owner of the community who’d been building homes for fifty years and employing tens of thousands of people in the industry, had concerns over the direction the country was headed under President Obama and certain members of the House and Senate. He advised me to vote Republican, under the grounds that the country can’t afford another four years of reckless spending on entitlements and ill-advised programs. It closes with an urgent call to action: it’s time to take back the country for the next generation.
The basement wall is perfect symbolism for the 2012 election. The drywall represents my eroding trust in our electoral system, and the paneling is pure evil. 
 Take it back? I can’t help but wonder. Take it back to what? Back to military aggression, unaffordable tax cuts and a public docile from fear of terrorism, happily signing their library records away to the government and racking up credit card debt? What planet is this guy from?

Well, at least he gave me a better reason to break out the Absolut. Got to give him that. 

“Reckless government spending” is a line that’s starting to get old for a number of reasons. Mostly because “reckless” (or whatever derogatory term you prefer) is an epithet applied selectively, depending on whom you ask. Some argue that massive spending on health care for the poor and infirm is unaffordable while others argue that wars tend to be pretty reckless, especially if you decrease taxes while fighting them. But hey, my builder wants to build more homes. He’s throwing his weight behind the guy he thinks will get that to happen. If I had to bet, I’d say you’re barking up the wrong tree, but good luck with that anyway.

Actually, my builder’s letter infuriates me for a different reason: He’s forcing me to stick up for President Barack Obama.

Let me be clear: I am not making a partisan argument here. Vote your conscience. But as historian James Loewen reminds us, although we’re all entitled to our own opinion, we are not entitled to our own facts.

There’s a current of thinking that seems to be building steam: Things were great back in the aught’s (2000-2008-ish) because back then, we had President Bush and the Republicans in charge. Unemployment was low, the stock market was booming, consumer confidence was high and nobody was making any noise about hope and change. We were on top of the world, but then the Democrats took Congress in 2006, and Obama took over in 2008. Suddenly, the economy crashes, people lose their homes, we’ve got a massive deficit and China and India are killing us on the global market. So if we just get the right guys back in charge, we’ll be back in the good old days again.

All of that used to be called a “straw man argument.” Then it surfaced as a viral email debunked by Snopes. Now it’s circulating in my newsfeed.

Were I to rebut all of these points one by one, I’d be, at best, parroting finer minds than my own; at worst, outright plagiarizing them. But I hope it’s not untoward of me to point out that to accuse Obama and the Democrats of tanking the country after a mere 15 to 20 months or so in power is to severely overestimate their power. Remember that President Bush was in office for eight or nine months when 9/11 happened, yet to blame him and him alone for that would be idiotic. Rather, one has to take a wider perspective of our foreign entanglements, and once you do that, you go beyond one president and one party, and start to focus on the military/industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about in 1961. Ditto with the economy: anyone who can think their way out of a paper bag will have no trouble drawing a line from the Friedmanite/Reaganite overhaul of the 1970s/1980s to the deregulation and subprime mortgage vomit-inducing monstrosity that left us all holding the bag while the criminals went off scot-free, more powerful than ever and ready to do it all over again.

(Side note: My original mortgage lender was Countrywide. You’ve heard of them--at least they’re getting slapped on the wrist with a civil suit. But every morning when I wake up, I say a little prayer to the Gods of Retribution that the hookers those guys were frolicking with all had scorching cases of herpes.)

I’m willing to yell about all that to whomever wants to debate the issue, provided we’re interested in arriving at some kind of truth rather than just scoring points and trying to get votes for “our guy.” Hell, I’m no genius, and I need all the perspective I can get. Yet I hope that, by articulating the aforementioned points of view, I’m not forced, by shoddy logic, to take the role of de facto apologist for President Obama. We should all possess the requisite gray cells to qualify the issue here.

There are grave concerns and misgivings I have about Mr. Obama, but almost none of them are shared by anyone in our country’s mainstream political reporting, or, if they are, I haven’t heard of them. “Obamacare,” for instance? Less to be disliked for its “socialism” and more for its subsidies to the insurance companies while simultaneously expanding their customer base.

His foreign policy? Sure, it’s great that bin Laden is dead, although if you want to split hairs, we did commit a war crime. Meanwhile, drone attacks have  skyrocketed under the president from the level they were at under Bush, which is a pretty good way of sowing anti-American sentiment and future self-styled holy warriors with an antipathy for America. (Never mind that their accuracy is abysmal.)

His education plan? A complete train wreck: accountability takes the form of test scores and discounts external factors that have a much greater impact on a pupil’s performance. Race to the Top might as well be called Frankennochildleftbehind.

And don’t even get me started on fiscal reform and his explanations of it thereof. His opponents can scream about how taxing the rich won’t help all they want—that’s a sideshow to me (although if you decide to tackle long-term deficit reduction, the $90 billion a year we’d save turns into $900 billion over ten years, a much more serious figure than the $130 million or so we give to public broadcasting that Mitt Romney sees as so unsustainable). What we should really be talking about is a system of oversight that ensures we won’t have to bail out the banks any more. We should be talking about why Obama’s Justice Department failed to prosecute the worst of the financirati even when they practically had DNA evidence of their malfeasance. And would it kill him to hire economists without fingerprints all over the current crisis?

But none of that has happened, for a perfectly clear reason: Wall Street funds Democrats in addition to Republicans, as do pharmaceutical companies and education reformists/activists/lobbyists. All of them have deep pockets. The voters suckered into thinking there’s a tangible difference between the two political parties include, it would seem, my builder, who’s convinced that his guy will make a difference because he’s not going to throw any lavish cocktail parties and he’ll sleep on a sleeping bag in his office to save money. Sort of like…why, it’s like cutting Sesame Street to pay for a financial bailout, isn’t it?

If we hire a few hundred billion of him and then fire them all, we'd save billions!
In 2008, I was of the opinion that “Change” was a no-brainer: Rising unemployment, two wars, and a looming economic crisis? How the hell did that happen? No, no, we’ve got to turn this mess around!

Now, “change” is being marketed as Change to the stuff we did before the radical socialist took charge, and in order to swallow that pill, you just have to hit the right parts of your head hard enough to forget all the history that led up to the mess we’re in right now.

But if you try to correct the record, if you’re not careful, you wind up playing defense for Team Obama, and until my rental property is saleable, Countrywide is behind bars and drone planes are recalibrated to start dropping books all over the Middle East, I’ll pass, thanks. 

So anyway, Mr. Builder of my Home Sweet Home, I won't be voting for your guy. I'm not even sure I'll be voting for the one everyone assumes is my guy. Or anyone's guy. I don't think there is a guy for us any more, even if we use the term in a gender-neutral sense. But as long as there's guys like you to distract us with the bogus issues, I guess there'll be plenty of mud slinging and innuendo to spare for 2016-on. Now come over and help me fix this wall. You bring the plaster. I've already got plenty of vodka.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"A Shropshire Lad" Reread

Deceptively simplistic, this collection ranges along the varied experiences and nuances of life itself. Love, death, defeat, fleeting victory, eventual demise and a general feeling of transience, A.E. Housman reminds us continually that we are but a page in a book we can never see entirely. Housman's Shropshire, in all its pastoral idyllic beauty, never existed any more than Margaret Mitchell's romanticized South, or even Hardy's Wessex. No matter. His themes are universal and readily accessible to us all. Substitute Shropshire for wherever you hold your dearest childhood memories, and you've got your own "fields and men we know by heart." Your own youthful loves and devotions become Rose Harland, who "walked with a better man" while "stock still lies Fred, and sleeps." And even if you never served a day of military duty in your life, just the very act of getting up Monday morning to go to work is enough to give certain lines an alternative, dare I say preferable, flavor:

Wake: the vaulted shadow shatters,
Trampled to the floor it spanned,
And the tent of night in tatters
Straws the sky-pavilioned land.

Housman is at his best, I think, when he touches on the universality of human suffering. The figures in his poetry sometimes clash, sometimes are victorious, very often are defeated and dark, and yet the countryside continues. One poem points out that the struggles that inflamed the Roman breast ("now ashes under Uricon") are still present in the Englishman's breast today, and doubtless will be in the souls of whoever is (un)lucky enough to be standing on the ashes of his own existence. "The tree of man was never quiet," he reprimands us. "Then 'twas the Roman, now tis I." It's a mistake to see all this as a downer. Rather, it gives the sense of solidarity--we're going through what many have gone through; we are not alone in our solitude. In fact, Housman effectively disarms this criticism in the penultimate poem, where in his alter ego of Terence, he is accused by a friend of "moping melancholy mad" with "the verse you make." Terence refutes this criticism with a reminder that there are more effective ways to prepare for what must be endured than by avoiding it:

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
uck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.

Indeed, he follows his own advice. At the very end of the book, the "ashes" of the Roman he refers to earlier in the collection transcend into his own verse (this is how I see it, anyway). Our struggles are forgotten, yet since they're relived, they're always remembered, and so are we. In LXIII, he turns his advice (good advice, for the record) into "flowers" that he "hoed and trenched and weeded," giving some sense of the sheer efforts of creation:

And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.

In Why Read? Mark Edmundson wrote that "vital options" for the individual quest for truth in art "may be found for this or that individual in painting, in music, in sculpture, in teh arts of furniture making or gardening. Thoreau felt he could derive a substantial wisdom by tending his bean field." Add to this Housman's invented countryside, set in opposition to (or perhaps even mirroring) a world of war, work, weariness and eventual defeat, and you've got your truth, and then some.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Grammar counts when writing propaganda

In his column today, George Will writes, “In the 1960s, public-employee unions were expanded to feast from quantitative liberalism (favors measured in quantities of money). And qualitative liberalism was born as environmentalists, feminists and others got government to regulate behavior in the service of social “diversity,” “meaningful” work, etc.”

If I had the moxy, I’d use this article in a lesson on the passive voice. Labor unions “were created.” By whom? For what? Ditto civil rights and women’s rights: who were the ones clamoring for all this? Was it this big monstrosity cooked up by the government to control our lives? Or did this all happen with thousands of people toiling away year after year, educating, building awareness, raising the issue and demanding change? The article is replete with issues I’d take up if I were ever (mis)fortunate enough to debate the matter with Mr. Will and his column (a typical one), but at the very least, we can all agree that the AFL-CIO didn’t come from some sort of legislative big bang. It came from the people. If that’s a special interest, then there aren’t enough of them today.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Meritocracy or "Meritocracy"?

I've never seen Christopher Hayes on MSNBC, but I did see him speak on meritocracies and his book about them in Chicago last summer, and immediately picked up Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Hayes argues that America's meritocracy is flawed because it results in a new brand of elites who then proceed to create/maintain a system that guarantees the benefits of being in the elite to their own kith and kin. For example, parents concerned about getting their kids into elite schools in New York City spend thousands of dollars on test prep and other edges, leading to largely white institutions and a fairly skewed marketplace for upper crust education. Or, take the social distance between the poor and infirm population of New Orleans and the state's/government's inability to meet their needs after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina; yeah, some of them blindly elected to wait the storm out, but the vast majority of them were without a car, and without viable means of escape. Hayes argues that this tragedy is not possible without a meritocracy that demonizes the poor and alienates them from policy-makers, rendering them largely invisible in the sectors of society and government that are supposed to know them well enough to meet their needs and deal with their problems effectively. 

Hayes' discussion of the issues are validating for me, but not particularly revelatory. What's worthy of note is his redefinition of meritocracy as something that needs to be more or less reinvented if we're going to come up with a society that truly rewards innovation, intelligence and character. We can't expect equity of opportunity to continue when equity of outcome is ignored; we can't expect anything but another generation of oligarchs (his word) when "vertical distance" increases between the ones running the system and the ones living in it. See the financial crisis. See the blunders of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. See the corporatization of education "reform." Et cetera et cetera. Hackles will undoubtedly rise at the notion of "equality of outcome," but Hayes points out, correctly, in my view, that it's cheaper to do this than to clean up the results of an inequality of outcome. See the ruins of the Ninth Ward. See the rural sections of Iraq/Afghanistan and our current reputation there. See the racial divide in American students' performances in and out of school. Et cetera. 

Hopefully, this will be part of the discussion now. When Obama said (however clumsily) that American enterprise didn't take place in a vacuum, he was perfectly correct. Here's one way to qualify the issue.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Two-"man"-ish indie rock concert sizzles at Schubas

CHICAGO--At first, I suspect it's just my court-mandated medication that has me hearing things.

I mean, it certainly isn't the star performer making me distractable. Brendan Losch has nothing if not stage presence. He's at the microphone, guitar in hand as comfortably as a rod is in a fisherman's, his quiet humility balanced seamlessly with his curious blend of crafted showmanship.

Currently, he's singing "Tired from Sleeping," the first track off his latest album Low (which was preceded last fall by Under, and last year's Down). The lyrics, as always, stir me: 
Tired of trying
Nothing goes my way
So sick of lying
To myself...

As I watch, I can't help but think of what Shakespeare said about the man "that hath no music in himself," how that man "is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils." Losch clearly is not that man. Which reminds me: I need to call Homeland Security and convince them to take him off their wiretap list. Honest mistake of a tip on my part. Anyone with a beard like that deserves government scrutiny.

Still, there's something oddly...deja vu-ish about this performance. I listen more closely to his singing:

Tired of trying
Nothing goes my way
So sick of lying
To myself...

He and accompanying musician John Morton have been driving the crowd to a screaming frenzy for forty minutes now. And there are only two of them. I had asked Morton in a pre-show interview how two musicians, however talented and able to multitask, were going to simultaneously play two guitars, percussion, chimes, glockenspiel and assorted banjos, kazoos and hooch jugs while harmonizing Losch's lyrics exploring the meaning of individuality in the face of the pressure to conform?

"I can loop that stuff on my keyboard," Morton told me before the show. "Looping is what professional musicians do. And I'm professional. And a musician. So I'll loop. Now bugger off."

Indeed I did. And indeed he does. Loop, that is. Through their set, Losch has claimed most of the attention with his electrifying presence, leaving Morton to set up various riffs, sound effects and midi files of people cheering and clapping ("just to warm up the audience," he told me before the show, "which is what professionals do, something you wouldn't know anything about. Say, when are you leaving again?"). And the outcome is plain to see.

But something still seems off. Losch's voice is strained, and his posture is a bit more deflated than it was ten minutes ago, when the song...first started?

No, that can't be right. I listen again, trying to dope out whether this is part of the indie rocker's mandatory ethos, or whether it really is time to change my meds:
Tired of trying
Nothing goes my way
So sick of lying
Up here...
This sounds vaguely familiar. I squint at my notes, realizing that Losch is repeating the first verse of the song, which he began...forty-two minutes ago. I look more carefully at him and realize he's sweating bullets, his hands are shaking, and the friendly smile with which he had been engaging the audience is now somewhat strained, complemented with scathing glares towards the back of the bar.

Following this gaze, I see Morton towards the back, chatting up a brunette.

Oh yeah. I just noticed: Morton left the stage a half hour ago.

Losch sings again:
Tired of singing
Morton went away
So sick of carrying
This song...
Wuh oh.

Apparently, Morton has looped his entire performance for "Tired of Sleeping" and then, finding himself bored and with nothing to do, quietly slipped off stage, leaving Losch to perform the rest of the song by himself. Unfortunately for Losch, Morton's looped music is on Replay, and with no way to wind down the melodics by himself, Losch has resorted to coming up with every possible permutation of the song's lyrics he can think of while Morton talks animatedly with whatever woman he's found who's drunk enough to pretend to take him seriously. This would explain why he's been on the same song for forty-three minutes in a row. Not that the audience cares. They'd listen to him sing his favorite recipe, as long as he accompanies it with the appropriate guitar riffs.

"I mean, the thing about music is, it's got to be good," Morton is now telling the brunette, who appears to be listening politely while smacking herself in the face to make his presence less painful by comparison. "Because nobody likes music that is bad. You see? You see how that works?"

"Excuse me, John," I interrupt, gesturing subtly towards the stage. Behind him, the brunette mouths Help me, but I ignore her. I've got bigger fish to fry. "You know, Brendan, uh..."

"Yeah, yeah," Morton grunts, trying to wave me off. Clearly, he thinks he's got this woman all but seduced. "Looped music, professionals. I'm a professional, man. Just go draw your pictures in your notebook."

"I'm a reporter."

"What ever!" he snaps, diving into a pocket and chucking its contents on the floor. "Look, here's a quarter. Now leave me alone."

Not being made of stone, I scamper off to retrieve the coin, which has rolled under a nearby stool. But I can't ignore the situation much longer--Losch's singing has become quite hoarse. Not exactly the hanging-to-sanity-by-my-fingertips-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff hoarse, but definitely the if-that-guy-doesn't-bail-me-out-soon-I-may-go-postal hoarse you hear from musicians looking for a break in the set. Certainly, his lyrics are starting to betray his desperation:
Tired of performing
Want to go away
So sick of
"Also, music has to be different," Morton was telling his fan. "Not original--I mean, we rip stuff off all the time. But we do it differently. So, music: good and different. Which I am. Now come home with me."

"I think Brendan needs you up there," I say, tugging his sleeve.

"I told you," Morton snarled. "I looped it. Christ!" And with that, he's out the door, figuring that, after getting one song completed in a now-approaching-fifty-minute set, he's earned his $12.50 commission for the evening. The brunette seems to have ducked out a side door. I can only watch her exit in complete envy.

Hours later, I'll visit Losch in the hospital, where he'll be hooked up to an IV, his calm demeanor all but abandoned, his own commission for the evening handed over to a South Side bounty hunter who's promised to return Morton to him in pieces, starting from the waist down. But before he collapses off the stage and is passed around in what must be this place's first crowd-surfing-the-unconscious stunt, I take note of how Losch, bereft of all accompaniment but his own wit, rises to the occasion:
...kill John Morton...
I'm hoping that one makes the B-side.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

How to entertain party guests: A tutorial

When guests are over for a party, it's very important to me to make sure they know they're welcome. Or tolerated. Or expected to clean up and make room for my real friends once they show up. And since I don't like to be too obvious about such things, I've found that written reminders about the house is a subtle way to make your will and wishes known to a bunch of drunk strangers tearing up your living room and rummaging your bookshelves for your hidden pornography stash.

As you all know, we’re celebrating the Solstice, which is the longest day of the year, which means every day afterwards will be shorter, serving as a continual reminder of the fact that we're all going to die. Drink up! (posted on front door
Coats go in the spare bedroom. Shoes in the garage. Wallets and purses in the sack outside. And your coats and shoes are perfectly safe. (in the hallway
If everyone gave me $100, I'd be that much closer One Percent Status. (in living room, next to big tip jar, which remained empty
You do know you were supposed to pay a cover, right? (on the back patio wall
I don't throw parties. I assemble congregations of acquaintances based on proximity and compatibility, procure provisions and provide my domicile for free range roaming and interaction. (next to phone
If you see the rest of us together, leave the room. We're talking about you behind your back. (in family room
Someone has the party favor shoved down their pants! Who's going to find it first? (taped to the front of my pants
Don't worry. That car alarm is so not yours. And I'm so not trying to get a new car stereo. (in the garage
Did you know Richard Russo is at the Chicago Printer’s Row Lit Fest as we speak? You’d better be as entertaining as Richard Russo. (on the bookshelf
Variety? You want variety? We got Coors and Coors light. There’s your variety. (on the basement fridge
I despise you people. (on the inside of the front door
I don’t know how you found it, but rest assured, that rubber ball and leather strap is only for the guest of honor. Now take these pills. (in the bathroom
Look, I’m sympathetic. Dogbites can be painful. But you clearly ventured into the dogs' side of the house. (wall of the upstairs hallway) 
When I have to kick a lot of people out of my house because an old enemy has returned from the dead to battle my alter ego, I usually get real drunk and badmouth everyone in a belligerent tirade about their overall freeloading and shallowness until they get disgusted and leave. Learned it from Batman Begins. Just an FYI. (not posted anywhere, but a mass text I sent the next morning to explain my drunken badmouthing of everyone about their freeloading and shallowness, which prompted their disgust and leaving)

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Adventures of Chase Harlin, Space Ranger!

Episode 23: Landing on Moon City

"I'm taking it in slowly this time, Skip."

Space Ranger Chase Harlin hunched over the controls of his space freighter, his long, lean jaw a slash of power against his chisled face; his hands clutching the controls with all the power of a steel cable. Skip Ripley, sidekick, yawned, wishing he had a cigarette.

"We're coming in to Moon City," Chase told his subordinate with all the authority and pomposity of a professor who's forgotten his lecture notes and is making do with hastily-scribbled Wikipedia printouts procured ten minutes before class. "I feel almost completely positive that the battle plans the Scriveners left behind will be found here."

"And if not, whoopee," Skip muttered.

"Of course, you can't trust those dashed Scriveners," Chase went on. "Ever since the Battle of Forma Terrain last year, they've been dying for a shot at getting those plans and unleashing Armageddon over the rest of us."

"I know, Ranger Chase," Skip assured him, looking at his watch and picturing several scenarios between him and Chase, all of which ended with the Ranger's head squashed under his boot, and with Skip laughing maniacally and smoking a cigarette.

"Why, for all we know, they'll colonize half the galaxy before they're done!" Chase clenched a fist defiantly and shook it in arrogant dismissal. Then, realizing he was shaking it at the wall, which was, so far as he could tell, immune to his scorn, he turned his attention back to the controls. "In just a little while, we'll sit down with High Council Spokesman Tar Tarnation. Then we'll get to the bottom of this."

"Right, Space Ranger," Skip offered on cue, wondering why in the hell Chase felt the need to continue narrating every single goddam thing that happened to them on their adventures. It made it not only boring and irritating, but also made even the simplest tasks take ten times longer. Just the other day, Chase had spent forty minutes explaining to Skip how they were going to use super-trans-power engines to cross the galaxy in a matter of hours. He'd even gone so far as to haul out several charts and graphs before Skip finally got him settled down, promising him they'd make a stop at the red light district on Planet Vulva before calling it a day.

"Of course, if the Terrakians get to the plans first, they'll most likely unleash war on the Scriveners and us," Chase continued, shifting in his seat and adjusting his equipment. "And wouldn't that be a fine kettle of space fish!"

Did people always talk like this? Skip wondered. In World War II, did Roosevelt turn to Truman and explain that the Nazis were a bunch of evil sons of bitches, which was why they were about to unleash ground troops in Normandy? Did Lincoln tell his Secretary of War in the War Room, "Now here's why we're going to go to war against the Confederacy...Ready? Because we want to reunite the Union." "Gee, Mr. Lincoln, that's really helpful background information!"

"Hold on, Skipper," Chase intoned, fiddling with several dials on the dashboard. "I'm going to start the landing cycle. If we don't go through the atmosphere with all diplomatic protocol--"

"They'll open fire," Skip supplied helpfully, hoping to avoid another expository lecture for the benefit of some nearby imaginary halfwit unfamiliar with the rules of space travel and elementary physics.

"If we don't, they'll open fire," Chase repeated irritably, shooting a look toward Skip that said, Who's the Ranger here? You, limpdick? No, me. That's right. "Ever since the Treaty of Putrefact, the locals here have been on edge. We'll have to keep a low profile, which means dying our hands and faces blue, wearing women's clothing..."

Skip sighed audibly and began thinking of big guns with huge barrels and unlimited ammunition. And using them to shut Chase's stupid hole permanently. It was almost like the guy was in a pulp story aimed at subliterate teenagers obsessed with sex, he thought to himself...

Suddenly, the atmosphere lit up with brilliant flares and searing thunder! A Klaxon warning began wailing. Red lights were flashing.

"Looks like something's wrong," Chase said solemnly, looking meaningfully at Skip, who bit his lip and fought to keep from leaping across the cockpit and throttling the stupid prick. Instead, he stabbed a few buttons on the console and brought up the visual.

Before them, a fleet of sleek, oddly-sexy-looking battleships were amassing in front of them, readying their weapons for attack.

"Egad!" Chase screamed, flailing his hands towards his face. "Terrakians!"

"What's the plan, Chase?" Skip asked wearily, already knowing.

"Evasive maneuvers!" the veteran adventurer thumped, tearing his shirt off. "I'll stay up here, explaining the military history between them and us out loud. You go get the makeup from below deck. My chest isn't going to glisten heroically on its own!"

Skip trudged off, contemplating suicide. He'd heard the Terrakians had vast dungeons of darkness and torture, and that they anally raped their prisoners. Well, as long as they had cigarettes...

Next Episode: The Dungeons of Terrakians (and some peace and quiet for Skip)!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Here's a little game I like to play when my nephew James and niece Avery come to visit:

ME: Avery?
JAMES: James!
ME: I'm not James.
JAMES: No, I'm James!
ME: Look, if you see James, tell him I need him to clean the garage.
ME: That's right, sweetie.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Super Happy Fun Fallacy Quiz

Super Happy Fun Fallacy Quiz!

Directions: Identify the rhetorical fallacy in each of the following statements. Winners get a Certificate of Completion from the School of...Education. I guess.
1. "How is it that I watch twelve hours of Fox News a day and I'm still an idiot?" --media drone
2. “I’ve been in several office building lobbies, and every time I’ve been in one, I get thrown out. They must not like good-looking people like me in office buildings.” –-chronic office building lobby tourist
3. "I went to that office building lobby yesterday, and I got asked out! So when my wife throws me out for leaving the seat up, at least I know where to go for another date." --millionaires
4. "What? Play a concert without the strippers in the cage? But it's what we've always done!" --musician friend arguing about his choice of performance shtick.
5. "I glanced at the newspaper headlines this morning. I didn't see any stories about Barack Obama not being a socialist. I rest my case." --Republican strategist in a phone poll
6. "Getting my kids to do what I say is like being a cowboy. First I have to lasso them and drag them while riding the back of a horse. Then I brand them. See, the horse, in this scenario is my authority as a parent, and the brand is the teachings I impart upon them, to be retained for all time. I don't know what the lasso is, though." --community parent and teacher trying to get me to go to the doctor
7. "Look, a bird! Behind you! Look! You have to look right now before it's too late!" --doctor of veterinary medicine, distracting me so as to give him his annual tetanus shot

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk: A dumb book report

I didn't pick this book out of a hat. Kirk's tome has been praised by figures such as Richard Nixon (according to Ambrose's biography, he read it avidly and used it to shape his own thinking) and William F. Buckley. Just last month, John Kass wrote a column in which he mentioned glancing at his own "dog-eared copy" of it and bemoaning the fact that today's Republicans can't articulate their own conservative principles, thereby guaranteeing Obama another term.

It doesn't take more than ten or twenty pages of reading to realize that, were any Republican to espouse Kirk's talking points, they wouldn't be able to get elected dogcatcher. The Conservative Mind, a history of the philosophy and ideas of conservatism, plumbs the likes of Edmund Burke, John Adams, Toqueville, T.S. Eliot and a slew of other philosophers, writers and politicians (some of which I'd never heard of) whose scorn for what Toqueville termed "despotic democracy" comes out crystal-clear:

  • Aristocracy (by his terms) is necessary in society;
  • Social and economic class is unavoidable (so much for Rick Perry's disavowal of the idea)
  • Not everyone's vote is equal, nor should it be;
  • The proletariat cannot be treated the same way as society's elites, which makes public education a waste of time and money;
  • We need a landed gentry with sufficient leisure to contemplate the heavy ideas and do the thinking for all of us, while we do the heavy work;
  • The southern politicians (Calhoun among them) "knew" the dangers of freeing "the negro population";

And so on. It's pretty eyebrow-raising, to say the least. Were the Republicans to hitch their collective wagon to this star, Joe the Plumber never would have had the career he did, the Tea Party would be home watching t.v. and Bush would have hung his Harvard and Yale certificates on the door to the Oval Office.

Nevertheless, it's a fascinating walk through a solidified ideology's history of Western civilization. Kirk is nothing if not erudite, and his argument is compelling, if maddeningly predictable in places. Depending on whom you ask, Kirks' predictions of democratic tyranny and a ruling power pulling all our strings may have come to pass, if one accepts his terms and premises. But by those same terms and premises, most of us are too dumb to realize it anyway.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Things I should not have said on my anniversary getaway

"Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Bam! I'm out of here."

"Did you pay the gas bill?"

"Mind if I call you Mother?"

"I shouldn't have had those burritos."

"Remember, Two and a Half Men is on in ten minutes."

"Here's one my ex taught me."


"Did...did I just get a text? You mind if I check really quick?"

"What do you think the guys are up to right now?"

"There. That oughta hold you another six months."

"I slipped the maid a twenty. She'll be back here in ten minutes."

"I slipped the manager a burrito. He'll be back here in--oh, that's him now."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Griftopia: Manifesto for those struggling with the hangover of the financial crisis

Disclaimer: When it comes to money and the business world, I rank somewhere between a pacifier-sucking infant and college freshman stoned on paint fumes in terms of comprehension. Ask me about my financial portfolio and I'll just blink and stare at you. Talk to me about derivatives and I'll most likely suffer an acute case of diarrhea so I can run to the safety of the nearest bathroom. I try to keep these things in my head, I really do. But they leak out.

(Sorry--that was not an intentional reference to diarrhea.)

Still, when the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted, I found myself torn. On the one hand, roll my eyes though I might, it was hard to completely discount sneering cable pundits' reports of "lazy slacker deadbeats" or whatever the phrase was, antagonistic at the haves because they worked for what they had. On the other hand, memories of huge taxpayer-funded giveaways are fresh enough even in my mind to make myself wonder, "Well, why not occupy Wall Street?"

I mean, it's hardly a secret that federal bailouts have been doing on for decades, and from what I can tell, the beneficiaries keep reporting record profits. Didn't Reagan, that paragon of free markets, bail out the S&Ls in the eighties? Didn't he install high tariffs to protect American corporations against the Japanese?

And then there's Newt Gingrich, who, when Speaker of the House, presided over a district that got more federal subsidies than any other district in the U.S. outside the District of Columbia. For him to go on about the free market when the dividend returns were...oh god, excuse me. I have to go to the bathroom.

Well, clearly, I'm not the guy to listen to. But I think I found someone who is.

Matt Taibbi's book on the financial collapse and the egregious sins of banking and government that not only led up to it but actively encouraged it has made my list of Books I Have Read that Really Make Me Angry (see Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? and Joel Bakan's Childhood Under Siege for other examples). It's maddening to get a glimpse of what truly passes for power, as opposed to the four-year cyclic sideshow we call elections, and even more maddening when the truth is groaning with the weight of financial procedure and economic theory that even the author, with his accessible style and breakdown of the basics, admits is a bitch to unravel for the uninitiated.

Taibbi begins his book in September, 2008, when Sarah Palin accepted the Republican nomination for VP and when we were (unknown to the mainstream media) inches away from complete financial collapse. This is no accident, but it doesn't take long to realize that his axe to grind is nowhere near driving distance of partisan. Taibbi starts by arguing that the Tea Party encourages the anti-government-meddling attitude that fuels efforts to repeal acts like the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act (which he argues is weak at best) while simultaneously waving a negligent hand at big-government bailouts of banks engaging in insane borrowing and speculative gambling that results in economic bubbles, inflated prices, artificial value and eventual busts that cost jobs and livelihoods.

He also points out that the Democrats are just as deep in the pockets of the banks for their elections, and that Obamacare is a huge giveaway to the pharmaceutical companies in a way completely anathema to the president's campaign promises. He ranges from the policies of the Fed under Alan Greenspan, to the mortgage and tech bubbles to the backdoor shenanigans of Goldman-Sachs, Bear Stearns and the other Banking Masters of the Universe. When his points are laced with jargon and technical language, he explains it, and he manages to keep a tone that swings between erudite and angry-guy-at-the-end-of-the-bar:
With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single sub-prime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country--and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.

But we didn't do that, and we didn't spend the money on anything else useful, either. Why?...Because we're no good anymore at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We're shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing...What are we good at? Robbing what's left.
With polemic like this, the devil, of course, is in the details, and I can't even hope to know where to begin. Banks pressured the government to raise limits on dollar-to-debt ratios? They ignored long-term risks, even at the expense of investors? They lied to investors? And to homeowners? They took trillions in federal bailouts and walked away rich as hell and scot-free? Rick Santelli is a tool of the finance industry and his Tea Party-creating rant was more full of bullshit than a cattle farm? Elections are a sham? Lousy homebuyers were encouraged and enabled by fake credit ratings? Honest homebuyers were swindled?

In the end, even as my head is spinning trying to keep it all straight, the essentials remain: we've not only been lied to about what's wrecking our markets. We're not even part of the equation.

Even to me, not all of this is exactly news, not in the light of the past year of alternative media. But having Taibbi to take you by the hand and walk you through the financial fundamentals is another matter. Yes, he's vulgar and loads his prose with invective (Greenspan is the "biggest asshole in the universe," for example, while Goldman Sachs guards dubious investment plans with "mid-level state employees with substandard salaries and profound cases of financial penis envy"). Yes, this gets in the way sometimes. But he's pretty persuasive, and I've found no serious rebuttals of his work, beyond the non-denial denials that tend to dog the best muckrakers when they're on to something.

Some other nuggets he dishes out: Mayor Richard Daley's giveaway of Chicago's parking meters to foreign companies (a growing trend that almost included the Pennsylvania Turnpike); the mortgage-backed securities scam; Goldman Sachs holding Texas pensions hostage in order to force the government to bail out AIG; the commodities bubble and how it spiked up oil prices despite politicians' claims about greedy SUV-guzzling Americans and the need for offshore drilling; Greenspan's Ayn Rand-fueled fuckups with the Fed; and pretty convincing glimpses of upper-echelon players like AIG's Win Neuger and his maniacal pursuit of short-term profits at the expense of long-term investors. There's more, but you get the idea: the scams abound, and while we're just figuring them out, these guys have moved on to five other scams by the time the earlier ones hit the press.

Critics argue that Taibbi offers no solutions to the mess. I disagree. Towards the end, he points out that, yes, the economic world is a complicated thing and it takes tremendous amounts of time to figure out the basics. But awareness is a first step, and once you're past that step, you're much less likely to get suckered in by the partisan rhetoric (i.e. drilling for oil in Alaska vs. buying a hybrid). My record of belief in the importance of the informed, responsible voter is pretty clear, and Taibbi shares it with no less zeal:
We still know very little about what really went on during (the past few years), who was calling whom, what bank was promised what... We need to know what the likes of (Henry) Paulson, (Timothy) Geithner and (Ben) Bernanke were doing those key stretches of 2008.

But we probably never will, because the country increasingly is forgetting that any of this took place. The ability of its citizens to lose focus so quickly and to be distracted by everything from Lebronamania to the immigration debate is part of what makes America so ripe for this type of corporate crime. We have voters who don't pay attention, a news media that either ignores key subjects or willfully misunderstands them, and a regulatory environment that bends easily to lobbying and campaign financing efforts.
Getting our heads out of the sand won't fix the problem overnight. But until we do, no solution is possible. So, at the very least, I'll be chugging the Pepto and poring over the business pages. That's one American down.