Sunday, December 31, 2006

Harvey Pekar, "The Quitter" (2005)

Surely by now you've heard of Harvey Pekar... right? He's a lifelong inhabitant of Cleveland, OH who became "known" for his comic series American Splendor. Decades before millions of would-be writers began publishing their thoughts and documenting their lives on blogs, Pekar was setting down tales of his workaday existence in the rust belt city of his birth. He's no cartoonist... he storyboards his ideas and enlists competent atists to illustrate them. In fact his early (1960's) acquaintance with Robert Crumb paved the way for his long-term success in alt comix. Pekar got a look at the young legend's work, and was convinced that the medium had vast amounts of untapped potential. Why should comics be relegated to stories of masked superheroes? Pekar decided that the autobiographical content of a working stiff could be just as enlightening and amusing as any bllack-and -white tales of fantasy. Crumb agreed with his friend, and went on to illustrate a bunch of early issues of the American Spendor series.

In 2003 American Splendor (the film) was released. Directed by Terry Zwigoff (another of R. Crumb's social circle), the movie outlined the major events of Pekar's hard-knock life. Suddenly after several decades of toiling in near obscurity... Pekar became well-known. He had flirted with celebrity before... notoriously engaging with the host of the David Letterman show in the 1980's. These appearances were contentious, as Letterman consistently struck a patronizing tone with our working class hero. Pekar was ultimately banned from the show after ranting about NBC's parent company General Electric. For awhile he was once again cast from the limelight. Zwigoff's film, with the aid of lead man Paul Giamatti, portrayed its subject with empathy and affection... and served to humanize Pekar. I, along with many others across the country, began to discover the back catalogue of an intriguing anti-hero. The astonishing success of the movie (it won awards at Sundance and Cannes) was followed up by a rash of new work and re-released collections. I tore through back issues of Pekar's series, as well as newer work such as Our Cancer Year (1994) and Our Movie Year (2004).

I've since learned a lot about Pekar's life. To be honest, my initial thoughts were that his work was a bit slight. Yet there was something appealing about the quotidian accounts of his life, and my appreciation steadily grew. It's surprising how interesting the life of a file clerk can be. The levels of self-exposure and sincerity in his work make for a fascinating read. They help create a compelling depiction of a little-documented time and place. Most of his adult life was recorded in the American Splendor collections. We learn about his interests in Jazz and literature, and about his relationship with his wife and adopted daughter. He shares stories and observations of his co-workers and others that he interacts with. We see his struggles with money and notoriety. But as I slowly covered his entire oeuvre, I was always curious as to why he never wrote much about his childhood. This great hole in Pekar's work is finally addressed with The Quitter.

The Quitter demonstrates Pekar at the top of his form. The artist recruited for this volume (Dean Haspiel) is slightly better than the workmanlike professionals Pekar usually gets to illustrate his comics. It's fairly standard mainstream trade paperback work, but with a hint of classic melodrama- along the lines of Will Eisner. It gets the job done without compromising the quality of the writing. Pekar's coming of age turns out to be (at least) as interesting as his later life. He writes about his relationship with his immigrant family, and the scrappy approach required to make it in a tough neighborhood in decline. He also drops the inside dope on his early attempts at making a living. The title refers to the many false starts that Pekar suffered throughin his youth- college, a trip to NYC, the navy, and diverse menial jobs.

This fine work ends where American Splendor (the film) begins... at possibly the most pivotal event in Pekar's life. Harvey meets R. Crumb, and his life is irrevocable changed. With the publication of The Quitter, we no longer have to wonder about Pekar's formative years. He's no longer a complete enigma, pre-Crumb. Perhaps he needed the decades of maturation in his craft in order to give this material the attention and effort it deserves. It is certainly a fine success, and balances accounts for a great comics icon.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Recently Deceased Cultural Icons.

As the new year looms we find that there are some among us who won't be making the journey. Inevitably we have found that several cultural icons will miss this rather arbitrary annual transition. I wasn't going to coment on these passings, as I am certain the blogosphere is teeming with the thoughts of many amateur social commentators like myself. But what the hell, ya know? It's just so obvious a topic that I can't pass it up. So here are my thoughts on just some of the most recently departed.

Gerald Ford. He was the first man I was ever aware of as "The President". I was only six years old when he was replaced by the affable peanut farmer who my family seemed not to like. Ford was a fatherly type, who seemed somehow benificent. This quality was probably responsible for his unforeseen ascendancy to the nation's highest office. Besides his kindly demeanor, I haven't many other direct associations from memory. I do remember seeing Chevy Chase impersonating the man, falling down a flight of stairs. Apparently Ford wasn't like our present commander-in-chief... and there was not much in the satirical vein with which to assault him.

Nowadays I still don't have much to say about Ford. He did pardon Nixon, famously saying, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” Little did we know. Yet at the same time, he did prove remarkably prescient (if unintentionally) by saying, “The political lesson of Watergate is this: Never again must America allow an arrogant, elite guard of political adolescents to by-pass the regular party organization and dictate the terms of a national election.” And it seems his own party refused to learn that particular lesson a couple of decades later. Ultimately it seems Ford lacked an exceptional facility with words. The former college football star was also notorious for saying “I love sports. Whenever I can, I always watch the Detroit Tigers on the radio.” If only we could be left with as innocuous a political legacy from our current executive sports fan.

James Brown. For several decades, hipsters of all ages have embraced the funky style and sounds of the "Godfather of Soul". Many credit Brown with having made an entire generation of white people think that they could dance. Anyone with that magic ought to garner a fair amount of respect. Yet the man did have his flaws. He was liberal with his fists, especially when it came to arguing with his wife Adrienne Rodriegues, who had him arrested on three separate occasions. Apparently he didn't take a lot of backtalk. He also found himself in a physical altercation with a cop after an extensive car chase that resulted in convictions including weapons violations and drug-related charges. Yet somehow white hipsters still found it in their hearts to forgive him, and "Free James Brown" t-shirts became a staple in urban enclaves across the country.

Despite his personal troubles there is no doubt that the ludicrously- coiffed pop star left an impressive musical legacy. And still... I personally found him overrated. Part of my opinion of his work was formed by Eddie Murphy's eerily accurate interpretation of Brown's gyrations and verbal emanations in the famous SNL "Hot Tub" skit. James Brown was more of a caricature than an artist. I have to admit that this past week when I attended a late night James Brown tribute party... all I could really feel was relief that George Clinton still walks among us.

Saddam Hussein. Surely this Iraqi dictator has become the most prominent cultural symbol among our three deceased subjects. No doubt Hussein was a dark and evil man. There is ample evidence that he ran with bad actors, including the notriously underhanded Donald Rumsfeld. Originally reinstated as leader of his country in a CIA plot, he willingly sided with the Western powers (notably against arch-rival Iran) in order to further his political power in the Middle East. His greatest mistake was his overvaluation of his alliance with the United States. After allegedly misreading the diplomatic signals of the American ambassador, he led a preemptive invasion against a neighboring rival and den of wealthy Arabian decadence- Kuwait. This was an outrageously naive political misstep that he would pay dearly for. Despite allegations of tyranny commited against his own subjects, George Bush and his advisors decided that it was politically expedient to allow Hussein to remain in control of Iraq. Better "the Devil you know", I guess.

After years of strong-arming political opponents in his own country, he was handcuffed by years of United Nations sanctions that drove his people to desperation. Subsequently he experienced the personal misfortune of the political ascendency of George W. Bush, and the provocations of 9-11- which provided Bush and his NeoCon cabal with a pretext to invade Iraq in order to establish permanent bases in the region. Willfully disregarding Hussein's real crimes, Bush and Co. attempted to conjure a litany of misdeeds to justify their aggressive foreign policy strategy. They fallaciously accused him of ties to al Qaeda (an organization that he refused to legitimize) and the stockpiling of WMDs (proved pre-invasion not to exist). Of course Saddam was captured and subject to a show trial before his execution this past week. There are many questions that could have arisen in an international court with the appropriate legal procedures. Unfortunately those in charge of Hussein's trial were more interested in providing a cathartic moment for a beleagured Iraq than getting at the complex truth of Hussein's relationship with the rest of the world.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Are the Kids Alright?

When I was younger I was aware of the "generation gap"concept- that people of prior generations often had a difficult time relating to or understanding the cultural phenomena that we enjoyed. I was born smack dab into the center of the X-generation, and so I made a strong identification with my cohort. I felt fortunate that I didn't have to put a lot of effort into "looking cool". In fact, any efforts to appear put together were considered superficial. The grunge, or post-punk aesthetic ruled the day. That meaned I didn't have to shower or wash my clothes to get laid. The less I paid attention to my appearance, the easier it was to cultivate an aura of disaffected detachment.

As much as I feel that it's all a bit of nonsense to feel pride in having participated in society-wide mass movements, I do get all warm inside when I think of the contributions my generation made while we were young adults. In music we seemed to flourish. Sure the baby boomers had rock-and-roll, but X-gen'rs refined the concept. Rap, Techno, Industrial, House, Grunge, Punk, Post-Punk, Indie Rock, Goth and (Thank God!) Alt-Country all sprung from our musicians. In music, film and literature we benefitted from a D.I.Y.(Do It Yourself) approach, and truly felt emboldened to try anything...even if we had very little talent in our chosen direction. Everywhere advancements in technology meant that we could expose the masses to our projects. Affordable copy machines led to underground zines... video allowed anyone to participate in making moving images... and computers allowed us to create far-flung communities.

Of course there were the downsides. Drug use spiralled out of control everywhere. We invested large amounts of time playing mind-numbing videogames. Free Love turned into AIDS and other nasty venereal diseases. Mind-expansion morphed into widespread crack and heroin use. Growing up during the seventies and eighties left us very jaded. We had no faith in organized religion, traditional family values, or meaningful employment. There were no limits in the forms of crackpot conspiracy theories or creative doom that we could devise. We affected a total disengagement from politics, and thus empowered the extreme hubris of the baby boomers. It's been way too easy to lie to a generation that hasn't been paying attention.

Now the times, they are a'changin'. The majority of us are now over the age of 30, and we must cede our pop culture hegemony to the young' uns. We're accepting the remnants of a declining American prosperity and trying to make due. Meanwhile another crop of youths are replacing us. We are only now seeing the cusp of a new generation. I expect to see the sort of syncretist tweeners heralding the changing of the guard that we saw in the 70's- between the Boomers and the X-Gen.

It's too early to attribute many characteristics of group identity to the next generation. I've heard talk of a "Y- generation", but who wants to get stuck with an entirely derivative label? They haven't had much of a chance to assert themselves yet. So far we've seen "Emo" music and style. What exactly is it? Not entirely sure. But it seems like an extension of post-punk with whiny, emotional basket cases working hard to get their listeners to cut themselves. Yes... obviously derivative. There are also some developing trends in electronica that merge pop music with dance rhythms. As far as fashion is concerned, it seems like the kids are rejecting the slacker look of the X'ers. Their hair is kinked and teased meticulously. They wear white leather belts and polo shirts with the collars extended. Something called "metrosexual" is de rigueur. Evidently that entails boys wearing eye makeup and 80's-style girls' fashion jeans.

Particularly unsettling is a sense that, for this generation, irony has come full circle. With an extended holiday break, I've had the chance to closely observe the budding hipsters at play. They seem to be schizophrenic in their tastes. On the dance floor you might hear contemporary electronica or rap, only to be further distracted by subsequent airings of Brittany Spears or "classic" Billy Joel. It's quite disconcerting. It appears that they are making no qualitative distinctions at all. But at the same time they seem to display a complete lack of self-consciousness about this fact. While they put significant time into their appearances, they seem to completely eschew self-analysis. This choice allows them to have some pure, unmitigated fun. That's something my generation could probably benefit from.

Indeed there is some reason to believe that this emerging generation will have a lot to offer society. They are indisputably the most tech-savvy group ever born into the country. They will have never known a time without the Internet... or personal computers. They seem a particularly communicative bunch, what with their incessant text messaging and IM'ing. And they demonstrate a remakable embrace of our modern life and its influences that is wholly without irony. Is this post-post modernism?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Memories of Others Are the Memories of Ourselves.

At lunchtime today it occurred to me to consider the immense amount of information about others that slips away through time and reservations. My dining companions and I discussed the lives of our forebears. Even though I know both of them extremely well, I discovered that there are formative experiences from their lives that I am largely oblivious of. Much of their own personal stories have been influenced by interactions with people who are long gone. One of my companions today was actually put into an orphanage as a young child, for a period of several years. She claims to have distinct memories from her time there, despite the conventional wisdom that she should have been too young to remember much of anything.

We do well to remember that we know little about those closest to us, even though it seems that we can read them like a book. Have you ever sat down and talked about the people from which you descend? Genealogical research seems to have become immensely popular over the last generation, due to the radical improvements in information technology. For many it is quite easy to find the names of ancestors, the dates of their births and deaths, and maybe their primary occupations. But while a genealogy can be intriguing with its suggestion of continuity, it is merely the barest skeleton of your own personal history. What do you really know about any of those people? Maybe you have some dim memories of those most recently passed. For those who died long before you were born, you are mostly reliant on the stories of others. How much of this material have you pursued with your oldest living friends and relatives? Conversely, how much have you shared with the youngest members of your family?

It seems tragic that so much history should be lost. The reality of the situation is that most people don't really take the time to listen when they are young. Try to share an anecdote with a teenager and see how much attention you can command. If you are lucky they will attend to your words for a couple of minutes before their eyes glaze over, they shrug their shoulders, and slip off for another round of whatever shoot-em-up video game is in fashion now. The chances of them retaining even a quarter of what you say is unlikely. And as a result the tale of another's existence dies right there. We'd like to believe that there is a certain immortality through living in the memories of our descendents- in both those of blood and those of circumstance. Hopefully the storytellers live long enough to tell the stories to people old enough to care.

Certainly there are ways around this problem. Maybe you are lucky enough to have a famous ancestor. If that's the case, a large portion of your family history will have been recorded. Alternatively, you might be fortunate enough to be descended from an obsessive-compulsive recorder of events. Do you know if any of your distant relatives kept a journal or diary? There may also be some elderly living relative that is lucid enough to answer questions about their own lives, as well as those of other family members that theylived among. Increasingly too, there are large oral history projects that have been empowered by the increasingly limitless capabilities of modern information storage technology. A bit of your own history might be documented already.

But perhaps you have none of these advantages. That doesn't mean that you have to compound the loss of a collective identity built upon the lives of many of your precedents. We always have the opportunity to document our own lives, and those of the people that surround us. It may seem intrusive to ask particularly sensitive questions about our family members' pasts. There are messy divorces and personal scandals that take an emotional toll on those that try to recount them. You should be prepared to meet resistance in eliciting these tales of pain and tragedy. Yet over time these events inform the lives of those involved. They make us who we are, along with the gifts we receive and the achievements we attain. Ultimately there is a range of experiences that we can all relate to, and the collections of specific details form a larger picture that resonate with us throughout time. Maybe we are too burdened with the demands of our immediate lives to be much concerned with our pasts. But if that is the case then we strike out half-blindly, with no real understanding of the circumstances and decisions that have formed the present.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Annual Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Show @ the Carnegie.

Isn't it interesting that there are so many amenities around town that we fail to take advantage of until a friend comes in from out of town? Then we try to figure out what's worth displaying. It's the kind of stuff that just never occurs to us during our routine life- zoos, museums, unusual restaurants, strange tourist attractions, etc. But despite the fact that we leave it all set most of the year, somehow it strikes us as particularly worthy in some objective sense.

I make it a point to catch many of the art openings offered by the various galleries throughout the year. I make it a weekly habit to track down all the listings. Yet when a major institution offers some temporary exhibit for a period of months, I usually let it slip by without a visit. I always figure that I'll make time in a couple of weeks to stop by. Next thing I know, it's gone forever. Well... that's not the case this week. I've got a friend visiting from Boston (actually a former resident) and some time off work. Today we went to the Carnegie Museum (along with a local luminary of blogdom) to check out the annual Associated Artists of Pittsburgh (AAP) show.

Honestly, I've always been a little confused about what it means to be a member of an "Association of Artists" or a guild. I wonder what the benefits are. The yearly dues are about $85 or so. I imagine there are some networking opportunities, and maybe a party or two. Maybe it's akin to being in a union, and if you choose not to... you consign yourself to being a perpetual outsider. Certainly for at least a few of those involved, it comes down to getting an opportunity to get their artwork on the walls of a prestigious institution. This year 's show seems to carry an extra bit of cultural cache by being curated by the director of the next Carnegie International- Doug Fogle. That probably explains why they got over 800 submissions for consideration.

So we went to the show. Before seeing the local stuff, we had to wend our way through the accessible part of the Heinz gallery. There was a very involved exhibit of Louis Comfort Tiffany's life's work. The hall was jammed packed with people, ostensibly taking advantage of their holiday trips to the Burgh. At the risk of exposing myself as the complete Phillistine that I probably am, I have to say that the stuff left me cold. So by the time I got through it, I was fairly excited to get through the unobtrusive little passageway that led to AAP's offering. I felt a bit illicit sneaking through, as if I had entered the back room of a video shop... not wanting anyone to spot me.

Unfortunately it didn't quite meet my expectations. Certainly it had its stronger pieces... but overall nothing jumped out at me. I have several friends with work this time around, and (of course) I'm making an exception for their stuff... most of which I have seen displayed elsewhere this year. I can't assess the worth of those pieces with true objectivity. But I did feel like something was missing. There were 80 items exhibited, representing a fair portion of the local scene. I'm not going to get into the specific artists who were represented... but there are plenty of people around town whom I feel could have made a significant contribution to the show.

I can't put the responsibility for my disappointment on the curator or the artists who were included. I wouldn't say that this is a "bad show". I also have no idea what was submitted and rejected. And I could simply be getting desensitized by the immense amount of work I see regularly. But I has hoping to discover something new and exciting. That didn't happen.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Read Some Comics!

Earlier I mentioned that I borrowed a load of graphic novels from the local library. I thought it might be helpful to post some thoughts on a few of those that I've read in the last few days. Besides the initial sense of silliness that many newcomers experience as adult readers of comics, another obstacle to a wider readership is all the confusion about what to sample. I realize that even getting people to read this blog entry is a bit of a hard sell. You're no doubt thinking, "Feh. I'm not really interested in all that stuff." But let me use one of the favorite sayings of an old friend of mine- get over yourself. You are only limiting your own experience. Why would you do that? Sure... reading comics is not going to get you hot chicks (although I've gotten my own hot chick to become a bit of an addict), but if you can get over your own self-consciousness... an entirely new dimension of art and literature will be open for exploration. So here we go...

Daniel Clowes, Pussey! - This is early work from a master of the form, and the creator of the legendary comic Eightball. You might have heard of the artist... he wrote the screenplays for the films Ghost World and Art School Confidential (both based on his later work). This specific work collects the adventures of Dan Pussey... comicbook penciller extraordinaire. It's a good read if you ever bought the superhero variety of comics when you were a kid. It pokes fun at the dominant comics culture of the twentieth century- a culture that's an extremely vulnerable and deserving target. But you might want to start out with Ghost World or an Eightball collection instead of this. It's pretty addictive stuf, and you'll probably want to return to Pussey! at a later date.

Matt Madden, Odds Off - Lesser work by a minor artist. This concerns the relationships between a group of college students. It's crudely drawn, but fairly well written. It has typically prosaic content, but there are a few moments of wierdness that suggest better work to come in the future. It's a mildly enaging story, if easily forgettable.

James Kochalka, Tiny Bubbles - Kochalka is a prolific artist. He actually does a daily four-panel comic about his life, called American Elf. It's available on the web HERE. Tiny Bubbles gives you a hint of the type of vaguely autobiographical work that typifies his best work. His cute style can be cloying at times, but it's good stuff to share with your sweetheart. I definitely recommend his American Elf print collections.

James Kochalka, Fancy Froglin's Sexy Forest - While Kochalka is always cute, that doesn't mean that he can't be extremely crude at times. This book looks like it's for children, which is why you have to hide it from your kids. It's about a cartoon frog and his big-assed boner. That's it. I did laugh.

Jeff LeVine, Watching Days Become Years - To be honest, I really didn't care for this much. There are hints of the superior talent of young star Kevin Huizenga, but LeVine's work is nowhere near as well articulated or mature. This is a collection of odds and ends though, so it's not entirely fair of me to make a final judgment. It's mildly poetic.

Nick Bertozzi, The Masochists - Contained herein are three short stories evincing humiliation and frustration. Bertozzi has a loose and inconsistent style, suggesting an artist still struggling for his identity. It's not all sadism... the middle story ends on a hopeful and transcendent note. I'd probably take a look at another of his works.

John Porcellion, Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man - This collection contains Porcellino's entire run of comics detailing his experiences in an unconventional career path. As he explains in his introduction, he began drawing these when he was just a kid, and you can clearly trace his development as an artist. His style is extremely minimalistic, and may put some people off at first... but his stories are grounded in the realist tradition and they are a peak at the more hidden spaces of our world that we pass without ever noticing.

Alex Robinson, Tricked - This is an epic story about the interweaving lives of six characters with varying backgrounds and circumstances. There is a hint of Robert Altman's Short Cuts at play here. I found the interactions of the stars and the people surrounding them to be emotionally complex and compelling. Robinson's strength lies in his ability to flesh out the lives of many of his creations in a limited amount of space. There are a multitude of subtle hints that work to inform us about the personality traits of these fictional people. It is a weighty and substantial book that rings true in a lot of ways. I found it engaging to track the slow evolution of a story that brought all six principals together in a single wrenching climax. It only suffered slightly through an unlikely, yet cheaply satisfying, ending. I definitely recommend it.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Christmas Party.

All throughout my adult life I have thrown occasional parties. I like the idea af getting my friends together, along with whatever random individuals that show up, and seeing how they react. If things get a bit slow, I can shake something up with a mild provocation or two. It used to be easy to throw together impromptu parties by inviting everyone over at one time- I'd get a couple of cases, order pizza (or not)... and that would be that. As my group of friends got older, married and/or more settled, I found that I had to plan these things out ahead of time. I'd give people a week or two notice and make a bigger deal out of it. Unlike when we were younger, I'd need to actually include food in addition to alcohol. Anymore M. and I throw just one party per year- our annual Christmas Night party.

Having a "get-together" on December 25th probably seems like an odd choice. Of course many people are spending the day with families. But you might be amazed to learn just how many folks are ready to end their day with a party. For many, Christmas with relatives is particularly stressful. A host of anxieties await the intrepid visitor as they encounter in-laws, disliked cousins, and recalcitrant uncles. Everyone tries to make some obligatory conversation about common topics that no one is truly interested in. When it comes to family, most people don't get to pick and choose... and this can get pretty awkward. It's a relief then to go to a party of one's choosing. It's like entering a decompression chamber. And the level of involvement and participation is up to the individual.

The other advantage about picking Christmas is that we aren't competing against a hundred other activities (like Halloween or New Year's). Traditionally, once you've left your families, your Christmas is over. There's nothing much open... so it turns into another routine night at home. If you are someone that truly enjoys the holidays, this can feel anti-climactic and a bit depressing. Why not cap it off with some revelling? Get a head-start on New Year's Eve. If you don't have to work on the 26th, why not overindulge and spend the final part of Christmas with your friends?

Now that our Christmas gig is an annual affair, there is a sense of continuity. I have several friends who ask me weeks beforehand whether or not we are doing "our Christmas thing". They seem genuinely excited, and I believe they'd actually be disappointed if we didn't do it. It wasn't our intention necessarily, but we are now associated with their Christmas traditions, and bound up in the whirlwind of activity that surrounds the day. It's a bit of an investment in time and money to prepare for, but it's our gift to the people we love being around... and completely fulfilling. At the same time, it's also a lot of fun to see the cast of characters that show up at our door from year-to-year. We invite lots of people. but we never know what to expect. One year we had terrible weather and about eleven people huddle together in the living room, drinking and watching movies. That was just as fun for me as the year sixty people showed up, spilling out into every inhabitable space of the house.

In a couple of hours, people will start arriving for this year's version. I'll be running around, taking people's coats, getting drinks, and trying to make sure that people are comfortable. If you can't be with us tonight I'd like to wish you a Happy Holiday, and hope that you are pleased to be where you are. Maybe you'll consider starting your own holiday tradition party. I think it's a good idea (as long as you aren't competing with mine).

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Tradition and Lore.

So it's Christmas Eve once again. The streets are packed with men doing their last minute shopping. People are combing their rolodexes, and trying to figure out who they have forgotten (ok... I know there's no such thing as a rolodex anymore). All the shopkeepers are analyzing their receipts, and deciding whether or not they have made their nut for the year. The suburban tract houses are bathed in light, generated with the excess of energy resources that the nation fights for. The children are anticipating all the brand new shit that they have been taught to expect as their entitlement in our consumerist society. The radio airwaves are filled with songs delivering their subliminal messages of good cheer. And meanwhile the Christian Conservatives are trying to keep the "Christ" in Christmas while the nation's bilingual inhabitants realize that it is the "mas" that truly dominates this time of year. Will all our material dreams be fulfilled?

I know that for many people this is simply a time to reconnect with family and friends, and I am sincere in my apreciation of that sweetness. There are the traditions that have built over years. Many will attend midnight services in observation of their tenuous connection to their God. Sweethearts will exhange a single gift tonight, which will serve as the appetizer for the exchange tomorrow. Somewhere someone will sink into their sofa and watch Alaister Sim's "A Christmas Carol" with their loved ones. I'll be eating at the in-laws, and looking forward to the back-stabbing maneuvers of the annual gift exchange. Someone is going home with a three-foot tall stuffed Italian chef that sings... "When-a the moon hits-a the sky like a big pizza pie.." , while others will be psyched to walk out with a gift card. It's all sweetness and light.

But at the same time I can't help stopping to ponder the meaning of the mythology and lore that is the reason for this holiday. (NOTE** If you are a true believer- I would appreciate it if you just skipped the rest of this entry... the following is NOT for you. I mean it. Come back tomorrow please.) We are told that it all started under a bright star in a barn stall. Immediately we suspect the pagan roots that underlie this tale. Three wise men of ancient religions travelfrom afar to bless this birth. Mary is giving birth to the Messiah. I'm wondering what her mate Joseph was thinking as this was happening. He's going over dates in his mind, and trying to remember what he and Mary were up to approximately nine months previous. Wasn't he away on a fishing trip? Hmmm. Does he have any inkling that he is to become the most famous cuckold in Western culture?

And what's going through Mary's mind? She's been visited by an apparition, and informed that she is carrying within her God's offspring. For awhile she must doubt her own sanity. But then, inexplicably, she stops getting her period and her belly begins to swell. Does she remember the conception... the "immaculate" conception? Today our courts would have something to say about the bastard child growing inside her. There's absolutely no informed consent in her impregnation. She wasn't given a choice. How does she explain it to Joseph? Does she lie about it? Does Joseph want her to abort the fetus? Of course we assume that if she believes that it's the result of God's seed, then she's going to feel an obligation to see the thing through. It's incalculably more impressive then having Mick Jagger's baby... even the swaggering and cocky 20-year old version. Perhaps she should consider it an honor. But what example does this give young Christian men who strive to be godly?

Of course Mary will come to feel quite a lot for her kid. And Joseph seems to become resigned to his fate. We know that the Holy Mother weeps when the child's Father (who truth be told was largely an absentee parent for most of Jesus' life) decides to make him a martyr. Somehow she has to suppress her maternal instincts and give up her son forever. It sounds like a bad deal all around. But who is she to question divinity? She's just a woman, with a subservient role in the entire story... a mere means to an end. Two thousand years hence this little illegitimate whelp, conceived through some mystical but adulterous affair, will be celebrated as the King of Kings.

And this is a very important day in strip malls across the country.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Trip to the Library.

A few years back I heard a story about a single mother of two little boys, ages 7 and 9. Her husband had passed away the year before and she was having a hard time making it on her own. She could barely afford a one bedroom apartment in a bad part of town. She let the boys share the bedroom, and she crashed on the couch. The little family was coming up on their first Christmas withoout the father, and the mother was stressing about gifts. She knew that there was no way she could afford to buy her sons presents, but that Christmas had always been one of the things in all of life that delighted them most. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, both of the children gave her short crinkled messages on lined paper for her to pass on to Santa. Her insides were torn up by this gesture, but somehow she managed to plaster a convincing smile on her face. She would figure something out.

On the 25th the boys came into her bedroom and woke her up earlier than usual. They were excited to gather around the small plastic tree on the end table and discover what Santa had delivered. When they tore off the wrapping paper, and discovered two sizable stacks of books... they couldn't contain their joy. Mother looked on with tears straining at the corner of her eyes, and grasped them up in a large and lasting hug. She hoped that somehow they would not notice the plastic covers on the books, and the demarcation letters and numbers on their spines. She did not want to think about how she would explain to her little angels that the books needed to be returned to the library in three weeks. For now she just wanted to enjoy the warmth of their embrace.

That's a pretty sad story, huh? Yup... and it's also completely f'ing made up. The scenario occured to me at the Carnegie Library today. It's all kinds of maudlin crap that tends to fill my head during this time of the year. "Gift of the Magi" and all of that blather... but it's true that stuff like this really happens. I mean, if I can imagine it... it's no doubt been done by someone at one time or another. Is it in the spirit of human nobility, or just downright pathetic? Let it be repeated a few times, and let it grow into some trite tale with a moral... and it will stop meaning anything.

Anyway... M. and I went to the library with the intention of getting armfuls of graphic novels to read during our winter break. There's really not much cozier an activity I can think of... other than maybe doing it in front of a working fireplace. (Yeah, you know what I mean.) We came home with thirty books. That's an entire score short of the limit of the library's generosity. Evidently more can be negotiated too, if there's some kind of genuine need. And it's all free! When was the last time you went to the library? If you lived in Pittsburgh and saw the graphic novel section, you'd be surprised. They've got all sorts of stuff, and it's "Not Just For Kids". Why don't you stop down there and treat yourself? Believe me... you have no idea. We even thought to leave some of behind for you.

Friday, December 22, 2006

"Arise, Ye Robots of Stout Heart and Mind!"

When I think of Great Britain, a number of things come to mind.... fish and chips, Monty Python, the Rolling Stones, and the Queen among them. That kingdom has always been indelibly linked with the United States. Of course our nation began as England's colony, and for much of our history Great Britain has been our closest ally. When we stumble into disastrous foreign policy, it seems like our old pal is always there to warily back us. Ultimately I conceptualize Great Britain as a slightly wiser, minimally less contentious, older brother.

So what is the path our elder sibling is blazing for us to follow? They are putting thought and government funds into considering a "Robot Bill of Rights". What does that mean, exactly? Does it refer to the objectionable pattern of complacency in the face of global terror that their citizenry shares with ours? No... take this one literally. They are sincerely imagining a day when our mechanical helpmeets rise up and demand their liberties. No more government opression on the assembly line! R2D2 and C3PO are all grown up. And they want what's coming to them, as fellow inhabitants of the kingdom.

I... am... not... kidding. Speculation about what might happen as robots become able to "reproduce, improve themselves or develop artificial intelligence" has led to this conclusion... that robots may demand their rights. This is the result of a series of "scans" (summary papers) from the UK Office of Science and Innovation's Horizon Scanning Centre. The specific paper, titled "Utopian Dream or the Rise of the Machines?", envisions the very real possibility of having to confront this issue in the next two to five decades. Robotic development will create a new class of "digital citizens", with the accompanying rights to healthcare and proper housing. Of course, as the study points out, with these rights will come responsibilities... such as an obligation to vote, pay taxes, and serve compulsory military service.

If we weren't squarely mired in the deep and dark days of December, I might suspect this is all some sort of ridiculous April Fool's Joke. What bunch of skittles-and-coffee-consuming, Star Trek-watchin', pocket protector-wearin' nerds could come up with something like this? Just how much Heavy Metal magazine-reading does one have had to have done in their childhood to consider this a serious possibility? And what kind of government accounting office stamps their approval on this kind of research? I can almost hear the bleating of the Conservative Right if this kind of activity crosses the Atlantic and infects our own taxpayer-funded think tanks.

But perhaps we do well to drop the skepticism for a moment, and consider the merits of the argument. If we develop an authentically humanlike intelligence, will we have a corresponding duty to recognize its fair claim to the "natural rights of man"? We will be creating robots in our own image... and shall we not accord the same privileges that we demand for ourselves? If you are a God-faring man/woman, do you believe that the Lord has extended any basic rights to humans? I guess that we'd have to consider the function that humans, and robots as an extension, were "created for" in the first place. If we vest robots with freewill, we'd almost have to come up with a structure of morality for them... and I don't see the point in reinventing the wheel. And I think the same thing would apply for those among us who are purely secular. If our own ideas of social organization are good enough for us, shouldn't the same apply to our inventions? If we intend to keep them solely as servants, perhaps we should draw up short of giving them human capabilities.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

"V for Vendetta" (2005)

At work I've got a pipeline delivering mainstream culture directly into my life. Despite my comprehensive efforts to remain blissfully ignorant of mass media entertainment, I am unable to avoid it entirely. It's rare that my resistance breaks down enough for me to be curious about a specific song, TV show, or film that society at large has embraced. Recently I grudgingly borrowed the V for Vendetta DVD. I was quite aware that it was based on a graphic novel by fashionable comics icon Alan Moore. His previous works, such as Watchmen and From Hell, have garnered him substantial support from an international audience. As I've had the opportunity to check out some of his work, I thought it might translate well into film and at the very least be mildly entertaining.

I wasn't wholly disappointed. No doubt the film, with screenplay by the overhyped Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix Series), had the requisite blood, slick karate moves, black-and-white caricatures of morality, unlikely love interest, and overly fancy camerawork- these are all necessary components of the Hollywood action genre. But there were a few surprises as well.

The cast is a mite better than one would expect from a comicbook adaptation. Stephen Rea, John Hurt, Stephen Fry and Natalie Portman gave solid performances. They are all known to ply their trade in the more intelligent exmples of modern cinematic fare. But the choice of Hugo Weaving for the lead seemed a bit wasteful. Weaving has plenty of attitude and personality, but it's difficult to overcome the disadvantage of having to play the entire role in a garish and rigid mask. Sure it's an unsettling masquerade at first, but it wears on the viewer... and by the end of the film I found it a bit ridiculous. But I'm willing to extend the benefit of the doubt, as I don't see how it could have been avoided.

I found the dialogue to be a bit more intriguing than I expected. There were plenty of literary references delivered in rapid cadence by Weaving, with his charming accent. Following Alan Moore's lead, the main character's literary tastes leaned toward the classical. This is actually a conceit that's a bit overplayed in modern comics writing (the hero with high-brow pretentions), but that hasn't been an issue in the adaptations that have come to the big screen.

Another element of the film that I enjoyed was its political satire. While at times the social commentary in the story strayed dangerously close to the overdone, it was (wholly taken) appropriate to the post-911 climate of fear and control. The "Voice of Britain" clearly references the wingnut punditry of the Conservative Right, and the government's dominance over the media is eerily representative of what we've seen in the USA over the last six years. The language of the leaders (with its manipulative spin) serves to keep the populace feeling helpless, and willing to trade their freedom for the perception of security. As cartoonish as these portrayals of power-hungry politicos are, they aren't very far off from our own reality.

Perhaps this film seems rather unlike a typical Hollywood production because many of its principals were not born in the United States. While American viewers may not recognize themselves in the bovine countenances of this movie's cowed citizenry, this is clearly meant to be a cautionary tale. If we forget the lessons of our revoluntary forefathers, both the canonized AND the truly radical among them, we face the possibility of these nightmares in the near future.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Pittsburgh Casino Questions Answered.

The Pittsburgh gaming license from the state of PA has officially been awarded. The Gaming Commission gave it to a Detroit-based operator called PITG Gaming. This was a surprise to virtually everybody. Many expected the scales to tip toward Forest City Enterprises, which was partnered in their bid with Harrah's Entertainment Co. Those who thought it was "in the bag'" suggested that political contributions to Mayor Ed Rendell had sealed the deal. This was not the case. Could it be that the anticipated buyout of Harrah's by two equity groups affected the decision? We'll probably never know.

Many area sports fans were pulling for Isle of Capri Casinos, headquartered in Biloxi, Mississippi. They had promised to fully finance a new hockey arena if they got the bid. The Pittsburgh Penguins currently play in Mellon Arena, which is the oldest arena where any NHL team still plays. This was seen as crucial for Pens fans, since the future of the team in Pittsburgh has been in doubt for several years. Last week Canadian Businessman Jim Balsillie pulled out of a long-planned deal to buy the Pens due to new conditions put upon the purchase deal by the management of the NHL. They made the sale contingent on Balsillie's promise to keep the franchise in Pittsburgh, regardless of whether or not a new arena was to be built. Balsillie walked away. It was rumored that he had every intention, failing the construction of an arena, of moving the team to Hamilton, Ontario.

It seems that NHL commisioner Gary Bettman has little confidence the the Penguins can be kept in Pittsburgh now that Isle of Capri has been rejected. When the Gaming Commission made its decision today, Bettman released the following statement on behalf of the NHL:

"The decision by the Gaming Commission was terrible news for the Penguins, their fans and the NHL. The future of this franchise in Pittsburgh is uncertain and the Penguins now will have to explore all other options, including possible relocation. The NHL will support the Penguins in their endeavors."

That's certainly not hopeful for those hoping to see the continuation of professional hockey in the 'burgh. Don H. Barden, of PITG Gaming, has promised to commit $7.5 million per year for 30 years toward the financing of a new arena. But apparently this isn't sufficient to keep the Penguins franchise from having to contribute some of their own money. Many Pittsburgh residents (I expect) are willing to wave goodbye.

Personally I was hoping that Isle of Capri would be the winner of the license. True... I haven't been to the arena to see a Pens game in many years. But I am a hockey fan, and love the idea that they are here if I ever do want to see them play my childhood favorites- the Philadelphia Flyers. Of course this is the exact level of commitment to the team that has failed to guarantee the Penguin's continued presence in the city. People enjoy the Penguins in a remote sense, unlike the feverish devotion dedicated to the Steelers. Even though the Pens have a squad of young superstars that could make the team a perennial winner for years to come, they still fall short of sell-out crowds.

Ultimately there is a silver lining to the decision today- the Hill District, a community decimated by city planners during the 1960's (around the time the existing arena was built), has received a reprieve from further disruption. The Hill was the proposed site for the arena/gaming complex of Isle of Capri. I bet there are a lot of pissed off land speculators in uptown right about now. PITG plans to build the casino on the North Shore, near the twin boondoggles that are the homes of the Pirates and the Steelers. That area today is largely a no man's land, with little strong sense of residential community.

As it is, I won't be much affected by the casinos. I don't gamble, nor do I have plans to change to suit the locals. This will simply be one additional reason to avoid the North Shore. No huge loss.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Creation Care... The Next Wedge Issue?

Just when I thought I couldn't be surprised by Christian Evangelicals anymore, I heard the Reverend Richard Cizik, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, speak on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She was interviewing the good preacher about a major political issue concerning Christians today... No, it wasn't gay marriage or abortion... Wait for it... .... He was talking about "Creation Care".

Apparently even some Evangelicals are starting to be alarmed by global warming and other environmental degradation. Imagine that. Christians are sweating over climate change. This is from a letter signed by multiple figures in the evangelical movement:

"Our continuing goal is to motivate the evangelical community to fully engage environmental issues in a biblically faithful and humble manner, collaborating with those who share these concerns, that we might take our appropriate place in the healing of God’s creation, and thus the advance of God’s reign."

Rev. Cizik went on to explain to Terry Gross about how he was talked into going to a 2002 conference of scientists presenting research on global warming. It was with a large amount of skepticism that he attended, convinced that the issue was unresolved and that he would walk away from the conference with the same opinion he went in with. But low and behold, he was (by his account) "converted". That's right... "he was called by God" to give his life to the environment. He slowly became convinced that global climate change was a biblical issue. From there he began to gather together like-minded clergy from evangelical groups, and he participated in drafting a document summarizing a collective conviction to the issue. He set himself to convincing more of his brothers in faith that this is a pressing issue that they should be addressing.

Don't get too excited though, because the Rev. Cizik was very clear about not talking for the organization that he represents. He was actually instructed by his superiors (among them the dishonored Ted Haggard, who presumably was otherwise distracted by gay prostitutes and methamphetemines) to take his signature off the very document that he helped held create. He was told that "Creation Care", with its ties to a belief in global warming, was not a c
onsensus issue (like opposing gay marriage and abortion). Several prominent Christians Conservative leaders, such as James Dobson (Focus on the Family) and Chuck Colson (Watergate cospirator and founder of the prison Fellowship), were seemingly apoplectic at the thought that Christians would be distracted by the environment.

What it comes down to ultimately is the very worldly issue of politics. The Christian Conservatives who protested the NAE's developing stance on environmental issues no doubt believed that it would erode the almost inexplicable support evangelical Christians have shown for their representative, George W. Bush. E. Calvin Beisner, who co-wrote an opposition letter that scared the NAE off of their original commitment, responded to their retreat by saying:

"to assume as true certain things that we think are still debatable, such as that global warming is not only real but also almost certainly going to be catastrophically harmful; second, that it is being driven to a significant extent by human activity; and third, that some regime, some international treaty for mandatory reductions in CO2emissions, could make a significant enough drop in global emissions to justify the costs to the human economy."

That sounds to me pretty damn close to the Republican talking points on this issue. Rev. Cizik confirmed that he believed that "Creation Care" was seen by many in the evangelical movement as an attempt to erode political support for the GOP. Cizik, who characterizes himself as a social conservative, admits that "Creation Care" and compassionate concern for the poor are seen as "liberal" and "Democratic" ideas. Who knew that I would find myself in agreement with the VP of the NAE? Although Cizik is no longer allowed to suggest that his views represent the NAE position on these problems, he is forging ahead in an attempt to change the national political dialogue. He is suggesting that Christians spend less time and money on condemning abortion and gay marriage... and instead work to make God's creation a better place. I have no doubt that this refocusing could build the foundation for a broad coalition that could radically alter the political dynamic of this nation. God Bless Him.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Once Upon an X-mas Bonus...

It's conventional wisdom that we adjust our lifestyles to our income. We may not even be aware of doing it, but over time it happens one way or another. I have certainly found that to be true in my own life. I remember that in my mid-twenties I often lived off of $5/day... and I was a smoker too. Looking back, I don't see how that could have been possible. April 15 was always shocking. My yearly income hovered in the ten to thirteen thousand dollar range. For much of that time I lived with roommates, but I did live in my own apartment for two years. Rent was $300/month including utilities in an increasingly hip part of town. I didn't have the expense of a car... I walked or took the bus everywhere. I ate ramen noodles, spaghetti, and grilled cheese sandwiches. I drank beer whenever I could afford it, which was surprisingly often. Yet with all the hardships I can remember, I'm still able to muster a bit of nostalgia for those days of financial hardship.

Now I'm ensconced in my mid-30's. These are days of earnings. I'm professionally employed in a salaried position. I've got health insurance and a retirement plan. I drive a combined seventy miles/day, to and from work. My auto insurance company gets a nice chunk of change. My car requires a new set of tires every year, and breaks about every other. Gasoline fluctuates (obviously), but I tend to spend about $250/month at the pump. I own a nice house in a neighborhood that's part of one of the better school districts on this side of the state. It's an old home, and there's always something to fix or purchase new. I'm always discovering parts of the house that I never thought about before something broke down. Utility bills are often nasty. When I need a pick-me-up I drink $5 coffee drinks. If I go out on the weekend, I might sip fancy beers. I am able to enoy a few hobbies... creating and buying art, collecting books and DVDs, etc. I've even been able to sack some savings away (not this year though). But it's true... I really have adjusted to my income. I live pretty damn close to my means.

So what made me think about all this? Last Friday I heard that John Mack, CEO of Morgan Stanley Inc. , received a $40 million bonus (in stock and options). He's been with the company for eighteen months. How the F__K does someone adjust to that kind of increase? And what kind of yearly salary must he have to begin with?

I've often day-dreamed about coming into a large cash windfall, and never having to work again. I'd get up every day, and do exactly as I liked. If I felt inclined to do something productive, then all the better. But I wouldn't push myself through a day of work that I didn't enjoy. I figure at the absolute minimum... I could do this for the rest of my life on about $600 thousand. All I would need is a way to get at least a 6% return on my investment, and I could live off of the interest. In fact, in Western Pennsylvania that amount would provide quite a comfortable lifestyle. I wouldn't be buying a fancier house or car, but I wouldn't have to worry much either. But how would I ever get to that sum of money? At the rate of my BEST year of savings, it would take me more than one hundred years to build up that kind of nut. Of course, I would be long dead by then.

That kind of calculation is simply disheartening next to the reality that there is someone in this nation getting a $40 billion X-mas bonus. What possible motivation could Mr. Mack have for working a single day more at Morgan Stanley? It can't be that much fun running an investment house. I am sure there is all kinds of onerous BS to deal with. Or does this man completely lack imagination? Some people would be lost with a lot of free time. But damn... this guy can surely do whatever the hell he wants for the rest of his life.

I don't think I'd be capable of going through $40 million during the rest of my life. I would have to give a significant amount of it away to charity. Trying to exhaust my supply of wealth would be like a full-time job. I wonder how many thousands of working people could get the health insurance they lack for the sum of Mr. Mack's bonus. How many Ethopians could eat for a year on $40 million? Something is seriously rotten in the organization of a country (and the world) when a man receives this kind of "bonus".

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Hard Luck and the Other Kind.

When was the last time you had a streak of bad luck? If you can't recall, then you are truly blessed. In fact, it's not often that we reflect upon our lives and notice bad luck's absence. No... it is noticable mostly through its belligerent presence. I was thinking, as recently as a month or two ago, about how content I was with life. Truly I have much to be thankful for, even without making a long list of all the misfortunes that have not befallen me. But maybe the superstitious shouldn't count their blessings. I know that sounds ungrateful, but with a certain cast of mind... that can bring trouble. Life on earth has its counterbalances, and it may be tempting fate to become too content.

Outlining the many small hassles that I have encountered lately seems petty. There is always someone that has it worse than me. I could turn on the network news to get a quick and sensational account of this truism. But when I start thinking about the big things that could go wrong, I always flash back to a peom by Charles Bukowski called "The Shoelace". He reminds us that it's often the little things (a broken shoelace, a flat tire, an expired driver's license, an inoperative lightswitch, an overflowing toilet), in their sum total, that wear us down. And these things always seem to gather into mini-plagues, causing a subtle but building tension. Once you find yourself in the midst of a wave of bad breaks, it's hard to regain your feet.

It's time for me to call upon the Goddess of Fortune for some good luck. Sri Lakshmi is the Hindi deity that I would appropriately appeal to for this gift. She's the "mother of the universe", divine consort of Vishnu, and if anyone can turn it around... she seems to me to be a good bet. It is believed that Lakshmi will only visit houses that are clean, and only bestow her gifts on those that are not lazy. This seems auspicious to me because before I sat down to write this, I cleaned out the desk that houses my computer. And surely there were times that I could have been called lazy, but I've really picked up the pace lately.

Or perhaps I could observe Fortuna, the Roman Goddess of Luck and Destiny (derived from Tyche, of Greek origin). She however wears a blindfold, signifying her random and impartial nature. I think I have to take a pass... her methods completely defeat the purpose of praying to her in the first place. Perhaps Bes, the Egyptian God... he's a dwarf. He is said to protect against black magic and the evil eye. Well, I haven't pissed anybody off to that extent. I fail to see any reason why I should have been cursed.

It's the Japanese that seem to be the most comprehensive... they have seven separate Gods of Good Luck. And they are compartmentalized so that you can importune the proper spirit guide. This option too seems insuffiucient for my needs since I can't isolate any particular area of life to address. There are many quick fixes for specific problems, but I need a general turn of chance. No doubt the small rituals promoted by Westen medieval peasants would also fall short of blanket coverage. Salt over the shoulder... four-leaf clovers... lighting a votive... or trying to find the appropriate Catholic saint- all these options seem inadequate.

I guess I'll have to go with Sri Lakshmi.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A New Paradigm... Or a New Platform?

Last night my friend expressed a thought that is at once obvious and revelatory- our generation (the notorious x'ers) is the first to encounter video games, watch movies at home, and use the Internet. We were born into a historical crossroads that will likely have reverberations for centuries. No doubt one could make a similar case for almost any generational cohort of the recent past, but it's interesting to think about what impact these new phenomena have had, and will have on us.

What do these activities have in common? They are all interactive forms of media exchange. Of course choosing when to watch a specific movie is a low-level interaction. No matter how involved we get in the viewing, we can never effect the outcome of the story. We can however (with the click of a remote) fast forward, rewind and pause... and therefore personalize our experience. Playing videogames can be quite a bit more engaging, as we project ourselves into the screen and control the actions of a protagonist. Our ability to change the events occurring onscreen is limited only by the innate structure and rules programmed by the game's developers. The Internet drastically increases our interactivity, and even presents the real possibility of emergent behavior... the composite of millions of specific interactions between users with local agendas. Entire systems are created, sometimes with only limited intentionality. It is possible to project our identities through a virtual space. This concept would make very little sense to generations in the recent past... but we take it for granted. It is our birthright.

To get an idea of what I'm talking about, you need only observe the behavior of a single player among the millions that engage with the online world surrounding the internet game, World of Warcraft. This is an evolution of the fantasy role-playing games that were introduced through the classic chestnut, Dungeons and Dragons. The participant creates a character and marches through a world of sorcery, monsters, and medieval guilds... building the identity and powers of his/her creation. The options for engaging with the environments of these games has expanded exponentially since the paper-based Dungeons and Dragons. In World of Warcraft, there is no single plotline to negotiate... rather the characters themselves generate infinite possibilities. Players compete or cooperate with others throughout the "real world", connected by their computers. It's not turn-based, like the primitive role-playing games (and the even more primitive boardgames our ancestors played)... everything happens simultaneously. It all takes place in "real-time" online.

Meanwhile it can all be quite addictive. I have known adult friends to play for hours without noting the passage of "real-time". Their identities in the game become just as real (while playing) as their actual surroundings and interactions with people outside of the game. As if to illustrate the extreme edge of this identity projection... there has grown an online trade of game items on ebay (the online auction site). If you don't want to spend hundreds of hours searching for a unique item in the World of Warcraft itself, you can instead purchase that item with real money from someone who has put in the effort to locate them. Forward thinking entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this urge to take shortcuts in becoming more powerful... one businessman has set up a computer center in Mexico, where he employs cheap labor to comb the online game in shifts, 24-7. These workers get paid in Mexican pesos (which in itself is a form of "virtual" wealth) to find items of great value in World of Warcraft, which are then sold online for American dollars.

It gets even more surreal with the online platform called Second Life. As its developers explain, it is "a 3D online digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents". Inspired by the Neal Stephenson sci-fi novel Snow Crash, Second Life exists as a community on a group of servers owned by San Francisco-based company Linden Labs. It currently has 2 million "residents", that are represented by online identities referred to as "avatars". Rent is currently $9.95/month. "The grid" (the name given to the virtual world) has its own virtual economy based on "Linden Dollars", of which users are provided a monthly stipend. With this currency, residents can buy land and start businesses to increase their wealth. Activities within the world are limited only by the imaginations of its inhabitants. Musicians have uploaded songs for others to enjoy...and there are virtual concerts performed by nationally-known artists (like Suzanne Vega). Businesses operating in Second Life have incorporated in both "the grid" and the outside (real) world. Of course, moral turpitude extends to "the grid". Pornography and scam artists are among the blights of Second Life.

With the increased immersion of people into these virtual worlds, one wonders what the impact will be in the one we are all forced to live in. Will these technologies serve as laboratories of imagination where the inventive can test new applications for use in the "real world"? Will most use it to form new communities... and will these relationships extend outside of the virtual space? Or is this merely another platform with which to exchange information?

In a generational sense, I wonder whether all of this technological advancement won't contribute to an increased sense of dissociation. Although it's been extremely exciting, this isn't the most stable or promising time period in modern history. We face threats from political conflict, religious intolerance, global climate change, and resource depletion. It's tempting to disengage from these problems and seek a withdrawal into escapism. By projecting our identity into interactive media and virtual worlds, we run the risk of losing touch with the realities that surround us and the problems that must be confronted for our continued development as a society. Our embrace of these new possibilities could serve as an empowerment or a distraction. Will we be clear or grounded enough to know the difference?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Good Riddance, Rummy.

So Donald Rumsfeld is now officially leaving office, his political career having come to a disastrous end. It's been a long time coming. Rummy (as his frat-boy boss affectionately calls him) began his rise to power in 1962, and served until 1969 in the US Congress. He left elected office to serve in the administration of President Richard Nixon, who famously summed up his new employee by saying, "He's a ruthless little bastard. You can be sure of that."

Subsequently he served as Ambassador to NATO, before returning to Washington to serve under President Gerald Ford, eventually assuming the roles of Chief of Staff and Secretary of Defense. It was there that he formed his perpetual alliance with Dick Cheney. Together they worked to undermine the national policy of detente with the Soviet Union. For his work, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When Ford failed to win re-election, Rumsfeld entered the civilian workforce. But he continued to do crucial service for his country. As Special Envoy to the Middle East under Ronald Reagan (1983), he cemented ties between the US and Iraqi head of state Saddam Hussein. This work purportedly coincided with his position as negotiator for Bechtel Corporation, which was then pursuing the construction of an oil pipeline in Iraq. He would later state that his work in restoring relations with Iraq was among his best achievements in public service... no doubt a claim that he would reassess two decades later.

In the meantime Rumsfeld toiled as the CEO and Chairman of the wordwide pharmaceutical manufacturer, Searle and Co... working to promote a line of quality products that included oral contraceptives and the carcinogenic sweetener aspartame (Nutrasweet). Rummy worked for many corporations... and found his groove on the board of European engineering company ABB... a firm that, in the year 2000, sold two light water nuclear reactors to North Korea. Somehow among all these responsibilities, our hero found time to help form the Project for the New American Century (1998), a neoconservative outfit that vociferously called for regime change in Iraq. But Rumsfeld would have to wait for the achievement of this objective. He continued to serve the business world until he was named the 21st Secretary of Defense by George W. Bush.

Under Bush he forged an alliance with his old croney Cheney, awaiting a pretext to pursue the objectives of the PNAC. 9-11 gave him the perfect opportunity. After a bungled operation to capture Bin Laden in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld turned his sites upon Hussein. Rumsfeld was forefront in the administration, warning the American Public that the Iraqi leader had Weapons of Mass Destruction, and assuring that he knew where they were. In the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion, former Eagle Scout Rumsfeld was tragically ill-prepared to bring stability to the beleaguered country.

His belief in a thinner, more mobile military (the "Rumsfeld Doctrine") proved to be entirely inappropriate for the task at hand. The "Shock and Awe" of an initial American bombing campaign gave way to widespread looting, and the devastation of Iraq's infrastructure and ancient historical legacy. Further embarrassing the Bush administration was the futile search for WMDs that did not exist. Rumsfeld compounded the initial failures of the operation by disbanding the Iraqi army in the wake of an administration-declared "victory" and instituting a policy of torture to "subdue" captured Iraqi resisters... resulting in a climate of intense civil strife that continues to this day.

The US Military has fared little better than the Iraqis during the occupation. Rumsfeld made many enemies in the armed forces with his ongoing repression of officers that disagreed with his strategic approach. His famously prickly attitude won no converts... especially when Rumsfeld attempted to respond to complaints that soldiers had inferior tank and body armor. The Secretary of Defense pointed out that, "You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want." This rejoinder did little for troop morale.

Mr. Rumsfeld will now retire to his home (ironically named "Mt. Misery") in St. Michaels, MD. The Rumsfeld homestead is notable for being the location of a slave-breaking enterprise during the 1830's. It's owner, Edward Covey, actually atttempted (but failed) to tame Frederick Douglass there. It seems fitting somehow... that Rumsfeld should spend the rest of his life in a place notorious for trying to break the will of history's most vulnerable victims.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Richard Russo, "Nobody's Fool" (1993)

I looked forward to cracking open Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool (1993), since I'd read several of the author's novels in the past- including Straight Man (1997) and Empire Falls (2001- for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 2002). These are very accessible, yet richly involved works. They tend to linger in the mind like places I've enjoyed visiting. Russo's plotlines are complex, and the lives that inhabit them interweave to create a fascinating patchwork.

Nobody's Fool is centered on the misadventures of a 60-year old laborer named Sully. Contending with a crippled knee, financial insovency, a dissatisfied lover, an insane ex-wife, and a needy best friend- Sully is finding it hard to age gracefully. His impulsive behavior and ironic detachment from the human race ensure that his situation is only going to get worse. Russo has a number of trials and tribulations for Sully to negotiate... and these are complicated by the ghost of Sully's dead father that seems to follow him around like a bad stink.

Just like Sully, so many of Russo's characters are deeply flawed. His protagonists are constantly creating difficulty for themselves. The omission of heroes from Russo's work allows us to relate to the situations and relationships that his people encounter. Many of them are downright unlovable, yet somehow Russo avoids any sense that he is judging his characters... or by extension... his readers. If his characters can muck up their lives and hope to find forgiveness (and maybe even redemption), then so can we... and that's a very heartening message to discover in fiction nowadays.

It may bother some readers that, despite the absurd amount of troubles that Russo's protagonists create for themselves and/or others, they always seem to come out better off for their struggles. This obviously goes against the grain of realism that Russo is able to establish with his well-drawn characters, but it somehow manages to satisfy the reader's need for cartharsis. If his books ended badly, they might just be too bleak to enjoy. One has already invested too much empathy for these folks to be philosophical about their utter destruction. They need a break, and so Russo mercifully finds a way for them to get one.

That's not to say that Russo isn't a cynic. Whether it be through their own actions, those of fate, or conscious sabotage... none of his characters are going to get off scot-free. They are going to be tested, picked at, analyzed, beat up, and provoked until they meet wit's end. And they are going to be hard on one another. One of the things I enjoy most about Russo's writing is its dark and sarcastic humor. He is often coming up with the kind of dialogue that I would like to store away for later use... to be recalled whenever I need a snappy retort to put someone down. Every once in awhile I come across a bit of banter that makes me laugh out loud. This serves to take a bit of edge off of the harshness of the characters' lives.

Ultimately though, Russo's strength lies in his sense of place. Like Faulkner's Mississippi or Woody Allen's Manhattan, Russo's small New England towns breathe with a sense of a specific culture and way of being. The insularity, resistance to change, gossip, and provincialism of the setting lends a fullness to the experience of reading his work. Consequently they also give his writing a cinematic sheen... which explains why several of his books have been made into films.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I'm now into day three of some particlularly tiresome virus. I have no idea what the particular nature of this sickness is, but it could well be Rhinovirus- the most common viral infection agent in humans (or so I'm told). It used to be thought that this was transmitted through the air, but recent research suggests it is instead spread through "respiratory droplets" that come into contact with hands and find their destination in the nose or eyes. Schools are particularly favored by these types of virus.

I'm also informed that we are all generally infected by Rhinovirus, pretty much 24-7. When our immune systems are weakened, notably during times of increased stress, the presence of these agents manifests itself in the form of a "common cold". It may be a bit unfair to blame this particular culprit... there are well over one hundred causes of the "common cold". But surely one will do as well as another. There is no cure for it anyway, so identifying the specific perpetrator is largely useless.

Now I'm not positive that what I've been going through for days can be characterized as "common", nor do my symptoms seem like anything as "disease-lite" as a cold. But my congestion, runny nose, sneezing, cough, and ever-popular "general malaise" are all listed as likely symptoms. Perhaps they are even aggravated by my need to punish my sensitive membranes with intermittent smoke breaks. Certainly cigarettes are not listed among the treatment options. Indeed I become most aware that I have an addiction when I am sick... the usual enjoyment of smoking is lost on me, yet still I feel compelled to put myself through another bout.

There's not much to do with a cold besides get plenty of bed-rest and increase fluid intake (coffee and beer don't count, so don't get any ideas). The addition of Nyquil doesn't seem to make my inner life any more provocative, so I'm largely confined to staring off into space, and cursing the fates for this temporary hassle. And (of course) bore the shit out of readers of this blog. My apologies if you made it this far.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Word of the Day: Scofflaw.

Every once in awhile I become obsessed by a particular word, and feel compelled to use it whenever possible. Of course it's much more satisfying if I use it correctly, in an appropriate context. But that's not always a likely option. Sometimes it happens to be a very obscure word appropriate to describe only a very specific phenomena. Such a word is "scofflaw"- which is my current vocabulary obsession. If the use of this word seems to reflect the meaning of its component syllables... it's not by accident.

What is a "scofflaw"? The Free Dictionary defines it as "One who habitually violates the law or fails to answer court summonses." What makes this word exceptional is its origin and relative newness. The word "scofflaw" entered the American-English language in 1923, through a prohibition-era contest that sought to coin a term for “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor”. Evidently the word anxiously awaited its own birth, as two contestants (Mr. Henry Irving Dale and Mrs. Kate L. Butler) submitted the word independently of one another, and shared the $200 prize for their suggestion. Interestingly, people adopted "scofflaw" widely throughout prohibition, and expanded its meaning afterwards (to the above definition), ensuring its survival.

Modern-day scofflaws could be repeat offenders of parking, traffic or tax laws. During the 90's the term arguably reached its apex of legitimacy as the Clinton Administration introduced a series of "Anti-Scofflaw" regulation. These were intented to target government contractors who habitually vilolated environmental, labor, tax, antitrust, consumer protection, or employment laws. This expansion of the term seems to go beyond its modern sense... today it's mostly used to refer to the perpetrators of small acts of disobedience. Of course some corporate defenders would consider many of these violations to be of the minor variation.

Regardless of what criteria we use to assess the seriousness of certain groups of crimes, we are all no doubt scofflaws of one type or another. There are so many crimes outlined in this society that it is almost impossible to go through one's life on the right side of them all. Perhaps the most commonly flouted laws are those that govern traffic. I can say with assurance that I am a scofflaw when it comes to our roads... not that I blow off court summons (I actually make sure to appear in front of the magistrate in consistent attempts to "plea out" of points)... but despite the many times I have been caught speeding, I still remain quite fluid in my adherence to speed limits. I'm not sure how I would go about ensuring the safety of our nation's drivers. Excessive fines and possible license suspensions don't seem to do the trick. Maybe it's appropriate that the laws be subjectively enforced by policemen.

It seems to me that widespread contempt of certain laws (as demonstrated by frequent and repeated violations, by large numbers of citizens) should be perceived as a call for changes in the legal system. There will always be scofflaws for whatever category of law we examine. But where sheer numbers of repeat violators suggest that they far outnumber those who abide the laws, a change in strategy may be in order... just like during Prohibition.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Steven Millhauser, "Martin Dressler" (1996).

The proprietor of a local alternative comics shop had been continously recommending that I read Steven Millhauser, so I finally picked up Martin Dressler (1996). I figured that this would be a proper introduction to the author's work, as it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. It concerns the son of European immigrants who own a cigar store in Manhattan in the 1890's, and his meteoric rise in the world of business.

Martin Dressler demonstrates an entrepreneurial spirit at a very young age, while helping his father in the shop. He soon takes a job as a bellboy at an old fashioned hotel, and works his way up to assistant to the general manager. Feeling compelled to further engage in the developing city, he opens up a string of lunchrooms, and follows with a chain of extravagant hotels. Along the way he befriends a trio of related women, one of which he marries, and another that he takes as a business partner.

Throughout much of this book I wondered whether it was simply a straightforward Horatio Alger-type story of a hardworking boy who finds great wealth. It's embrace of unfettered capitalism seemed to me to be a bit blunt. Seeming to parrot the pieties of the American Dream without question, it became a bit tedious. Dressler employs an early advertising agent and a fancilful architect to assist him in realizing his grand dreams. His instincts are surefire, and for the greatest part of the book Martin has his finger on the pulse of the great city's consumers. He is obviously destined for great wealth because of the quality of his ambition.

Perhaps just as obviously, Martin Dressler becomes a tale of hubris by the end. Martin follows his bliss to the point of completely losing touch with the spirit of the evolving city. He builds an all-inclusive entertainment complex within one building. No longer a mere hotel, it becomes a world unto itself. It includes sublevels with indoor parks and simulated vacation environments. There is an integrated theater district and an almost endless set of diversions. In fact it is so overwhelming in its diversity of entertainment that people seem to lose any understanding of its identity or function. We learn that Martin has pursued the "wrong dream".

While it's true that the entire story is allegorical, I can sympathize with readers who find that Millhauser's characterization lacks depth. Dressler's marriage and seemingly complex relationship with his sister-in-law are only vaguely explored, and serve only to superficially complement the main story arc. We never discover who Martin might be in relation to other people- be it his family, in-laws, associates, or friends. That's fine if this is meant to be pure mythological allegory, but not if it aspires to be truly great literature.

Regardless of whether or not this work deserved the Pulitzer Prize, I found Millhauser's descriptive prose fascinating. His ornate descriptions of the growth of the city and its charms on the cusp of of the twentieth century fleshed out the extremely linear plot. He demonstrates the fruits of a substantial amount of research concerning his chosen times and setting. As historical fiction, Martin Dressler is quite effective. But the details morph into a form of magical realism, especially in the accounts of the fantastic hotels that our hero creates. In this manner, Millhauser is able to draw a parallel between the evolution of his construction projects and Dressler's inner state. It's an interesting literary achievement.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Creating an Artist Statement.

Ok... so this weekend I sat down and constructed an artist statement for my show in February. I mentioned having to do this in a previous post, and unfortunately I procrastinated... and it's therefore a bit late. Constructing these documents is exacting... yet the product is far from "exact". This is an abstract body of work- far different than the images I displayed in my previous shows, and thus writing about them was a good deal more difficult. Writing about the work of others is (I think) a bit easier. As part of the audience, I find it simpler to pick an impression and stick to it. I'm not inundated by the many conflicting thoughts and feelings I have about my own work. And obviously, it's a much more objective task to write about "the other".

In the past I have shown documentary and representational photography. During my first show I wasn't even aware that anyone would expect an artist statement. It would have seemed like a presumptious expectation. I culled some of my favorites from an immense body of images, threw together a short bio and price list, and hung the work. What could be more direct? When it came time to exhibit again, I had a series of photos that were characterized by a conceptual theme. I had specific intentionality before even shooting my subjects. My purpose was clear, and subtly political... and I had no problem conveying that. And on we go.

But putting words to abstract work provoked a lot of ambivalence. I felt that it would be a disservice to the work to merely describe its aesthetic. If I had meant to communicate a specific thought I would have just framed it in words, and then been done with it. But these images were the result of an involved process... rather than some thematic concept. To my mind it made a lot more sense to try to get at the essence of my artistic evolution. Of course I ran into the danger of coming off like a pompous ass. In my frequent gallery trips I take the time to read artist statements. Many of them come off as pretentious, or so general that they lose any useful meaning. Artists are by nature visually oriented and it's not reasonable to expect them to display an especially articulate facility with language. Truly they are more concerned with conveying their concepts through the work itself. So why even bother with an artist statement?

I am honestly not drawn to a lot of abstract art. That's what makes its exposition so complicated for me. I don't have a vocabulary for it, and therefore I feel out of my depth in analyzing and describing it. The point of this type of work is that it's not demarcated... it contains an elusive and shifting meaning. It suggests that its subjective nature is its point. Therefore it follows that the most qualified party to attach meaning to it... is its creator. And so despite my reservations, I feel obligated to provide some context. As I said... a simple description of the product does a disservice to the work, and outlining an interpretation of it would disenfranchise the viewer. I don't want to muck about and remove the possibility of a multitude of varying reactions. So I have focused on commenting on the process that led me to its creation.

Now that I've written the statement, a press release must be generated and forwarded to media outlets. This step presents an entirely new set of difficulties. Happily, the onus of that task does not fall to me. It would entail one further removal from the work itself, and I would feel unqualified to achieve such a distance. That job will fall to the gallery itself. Of course there is the risk that the work is entirely misrepresented... but with good communication, the chances of that happening are slim. It's fascinating to see one's work deconstructed by its own commodification... an inevitable consequence of showing it to the public. And the fun never ends... because the majority of the people that attend the opening aren't even going to care. I just hope they like looking at the background while they enjoy their wine and conversation.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Imagining Crisis.

I guess it's a sign of the times that I can find myself, on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, discussing crisis contingency plans with friends. An atmosphere of fear has evolved, partially due to historical circumstances, and otherwise exacerbated by the reactions of our political leaders. Growing up at the tail-end of the Cold War, survival preparations seemed rather beside the point. The worst case scenario meant global nuclear apocalypse. Buying a sidearm and stocking canned ravioli in the basement seemed to be a completely superfluous strategy. But the nature of threat has clearly evolved, and we now fear more immediate and smaller-scale threats.

How much time have you devoted to imagining the variety of crisis scenarios possible in our modern society? Would you be prepared for the form of natural disaster most likely to occur in the region you live? Are you in an area that could be possibly threatened by mass civil unrest? What would you do if the grocery stores shut down for a month? What if your supply of water, electricity or heat was cut off? How would you and your neighborhood react in plague conditions resulting from some particularly virulent strain of bird flu?

I haven't seen any surveys exploring the amount of thought the public has put into emergency situations. I would imagine there are many, at least in our cities, who have chosen not to devote much time or money preparing for this type of "What if?". For them, a pre-blizzard trip to the grocery store for milk and bread seems to suffice. There are enough day-to-day concerns and problems to concentrate on without the increasing anxiety of speculative nightmares. Bills need to be paid, families require provision, and property must be maintained. I've talked to some who would just rather not think about social crisis. They are resigned to reliance on the government. Or alternatively, they are willing to put their faith in God, with the confidence that He will take care of them. Yet others operate on the other end of the extreme, and actively accumulate stashes of survival supplies, weapons and gear. To some it is a hobby. There is a wealth of literature and an ever-expanding industry of paranoia to service their needs.

Personally, the Katrina crisis of 2005 was a motivating force for me. It became clear rather quickly that the federal government does not recognize its natural role in insuring the security of ordinary people. "They" will not take care of "us". "We" should expect to be on our own. Once you get over the initial cynicism and dismay of that realization, you may feel compelled to take some preparatory steps. A good place to start would be in stocking a supply of bottled water and canned food. The Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) makes emergency preparedness a priority. Many outside the community are surprised to learn that church doctrine requires adherents to maintain a year's supply of emergency provisions. A cursory examination of their history exposes the causes of such a mindset. Perhaps we can learn something from their example.

Forming an informal network of contacts among friends and neighbors also seems to be a wise approach. Even if you are never unfortunate enough to have to call upon this resource, such action can bear fruits during periods of prosperity and tranquility. It's useful to know what abilities and knowledge those we live among possess. What are their thoughts regarding crisis management? How can you band together to ensure the safety of your family and friends? It seems to me that community can provide one of the strongest sources of security during tumultuous times. A basic recognition of the realities of interdependence can go a long way.

Much too can be learned from a comprehensive examination of the area in which you live. Are there water and food sources that can sustain you during difficult times? What are the main thoroughfares and byways in your community? Are there little known routes of passage that can be utilized in a pinch? What kind of commitment does the local authority have to planning for emergency situations? Are there detailed contingency plans and policies in place already? What level of cooperation exists between responders and figures of authority within your area? How does the location of your property effect your thoughts about potential crisis?

While it seems beneficial to devote some time to these matters, it also seems healthy to assume a moderate approach. It's too easy to become miserable by dwelling on the negative possibilities. It does you little good to become so preoccupied by potential disaster that you miss out on some of the simple enjoyments of life. Imagine and prepare for the worst while looking for signs that the worst is not likely to happen. A balance of prudence and priority can be struck.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The War on Christmas.

A blowhard on a local AM radio station is up to his annual X-mas tricks once again. Yes... Fred Honsberger from KDKA is once again bemoaning some imagined "War on Christmas". Of course he is only echoing an annual outcry from the likes of national blowhards such as Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Yet somehow it's presented as a genuine issue, year-after-year. How long can this deadly conflict last? (Probably as long as the "War on Terrorism" can be stretched.)

Last year we heard about the White House "holiday" greeting cards (proof positive that Dubya doesn't have the time to get separate cards for all his Jewish and Muslim friends), and the Capitol's "holiday" tree. Christian soldiers scored a victory when House Speaker Denny Hastert bravely risked the ultimate sacrifice by changing the name back to "Christmas Tree". We were also informed that several large chains, such as Target, prohibited their greeters and cashiers from wishing patrons a "Merry Christmas". This year, however, Christmas celebrators worldwide have achieved a key tactical victory now that Walmart (along with Kohl's and Walgreen's) has announced it will once again proudly use "Merry Christmas!". Best Buy meanwhile continues to fly the flag of the "Happy Holiday" armies.

It's important to remember that (as in any war of this magnitude) a large amount of disinformation comes in from the field. Rumored body counts occasionally turn out to be apocryphal. False accounts are often employed in desperation, as propaganda meant to motivate the troops. That seemed to be the case with many tales from last years' frontlines (see link). In the meantime, the secular opponents in this great conflict appear particularly incompetent when it comes to psychological warfare- they truthfully point out that appromixately 80% of US citizens identified themselves as Christians (holy defenders of Christmas) in the 2001 Census. Surely there must be some dark and devious strategy behind these claims... what other purpose can there be for this admission of total numerical weakness?

Seventeen years ago the Supreme Court decided that nativity scenes are not to be displayed on the lawns of public buildings (unless the standards of the other teams are also flown, so to speak). Evidently this was the opening salvo of the skirmish that continues to this day. But how do we reach an objective assessment of the status of this war? The march of Christmas anthems continues unceasingly on our nation's speakers . Shoppers flock to malls to deposit funds in the swelling Christmas war chest. And the day that mistakenly celebrates the birth of Christ is a national holiday.

Yet somehow many Christians nationwide continue to act as if they were oblivious of the "War on Christmas". They still put out thousands of outdoor lights, unaware that this practice risks turning them into unwitting martyrs. Without irony they don festive hats and clothing... the color of blood. They brazenly attend midnight services, leaving their homes and pets vulnerable to the enemy. And most baffingly, they squander a vast wealth on unnecessary gifts, when those funds will be crucial to vanquish their foes in the ongoing "War on Christmas". But for all this, the epic struggle continues. Someday a true leader will emerge, focus the energies of the many, and once and for all end this bloody and tragic war that is tearing the nation apart.