Saturday, March 31, 2007

Sherman Alexie, "Reservation Blues" (1996)

Growing up on the East Coast, it'd be really easy to doubt the existence of Native Americans. For someone from Philadelphia or Washington DC, Indians have all the solidity of leprechauns, faeries or Bigfoot. How did the indigenous peoples of the Americas become akin to mythical figures? Well, it's a complicated story, but I think it has something to do with genocide, miscegenation and nationalism. If you don't know the story, then I suggest you consult a history book written after the 1950's.

Truth be told, there are millions of people with Native American ancestry in our very own country- that's right... you know them as "Mexicans". Unfortunately that's not a realization that many Middle Americans have grasped. But it certainly puts things in perspective. The next time you hear some yahoo bitching about the flood of "illegal immigrants invading our country", you just tell them to lip up and get learned. Cause their claim on this land precedes ours. The good and honorable James K. Polk did much to obfuscate that fact.

Of course there were many nations north of the Rio Grande even before the pale-faced marauders set foot on this land of plenty. And despite the best efforts of Europeans, some of them actually still exist. Tribal lands are known as "reservations", and they spot our nation. But the majority of people have no clue what happens on them. I don't either. I don't understand their connection to the US government or the range of their autonomy. I can't tell you where the Shoshoni or the Flatheads originated. I don't know the difference between traditional Indian clothes and South-of-the-Border tourist trap trinkets. All I know is what the mainstream media tells us- Indians drink a lot, and run casinos. That's about it. I did visit the Cherokee reservation at the base of the Smoky Mountains, but I mostly saw kitschy stores and tobacco outlets.

So it's a good thing for me (and the rest of us) that Sherman Alexie writes books. He's a 40-year old Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian from Wellpinit, Washington, and he is most famous for a collection of short stories called The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993). In that book he introduced readers to a series of characters loosely based upon people from his homelands. The story of those characters was expanded in Alexie's first novel Reservation Blues (1995). The author presents a depiction of life growing up on the reservation, and the exploits of a rock band called "Coyote River". Certainly some of the stereotypes of Indian life are reinforced- alcoholism, poverty, etc., but Alexie also documents the efforts made to continue an adherence to some small semblance of tribal traditions.

Alexie's mix of gritty realism and magical surrealism is eminently accessible. The dreamlife of the inhabitants of the Spokane reservation is juxtaposed with the temptation to embrace (or by turns resist) modern American society. That conflict makes for an intriguing page-turner. While Alexie is certainly angry about the treatment his people have received, he doesn't burden the reader with a surplus of guilt. He mixes comedy and self-deprecation in equal parts, and while sections of his novel weigh heavily with sadness, one could hardly call Reservation Blues a slog. The best thing for me about reading this boook is that I have been introduced to a relatively young author with years of productivity ahead of him. And so it seems that the final chapter of the Native American story has yet to be written.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Art and Ego.

One of the problematic aspects of showing my work over these last couple years is the slow accretion of ego that is beginning to plague me. This is not a revelation that I am particularly proud of having to express. When I first started exhibiting my stuff, I was naive in my firmly held belief that I would be able to keep it simple, and relish the experience without reservations. And for awhile I did. I suppose it was because of my lack of any real expectations. I'm not formally trained in photography, drawing or any other visual art. I didn't negotiate the tricky politics of an MFA program. I also didn't have to struggle to get attention. My entry into the local arts scene was facilitated by people I have known for a long time. Before I knew it, I was getting some exposure, and people were offering me opportunities to show work. It was exciting, new, and fun. The best thing was that I never had time to pause and think about it.

People have been so welcoming and affirming that it is only after a few years that my ego is becoming an issue. I somehow got the idea that my trajectory would continue in the same direction, and at the same speed. Now I am starting to realize that the realities of the art world are more complex than I had ever imagined. I wonder now how I could have ever thought that the arts were detached from all the ordinary concerns of our society. The truth is that all the regular rules seem to apply. Commodification is only the most obvious example of what I'm talking about. There are also social networking issues and viewer patterns of perception to deal with. There is a whole new set of politics to deal with. Once you put yourself out there, you are bound to the influences of a multitude of forces from all the usual subjects.

I remember thinking when I started that it was sufficient merely to have the opportunity to show my artwork. The fact that someone decided that it was worthwhile enough to display seemed validation enough. Soon after I felt like I would need to sell a piece to truly arrive as an artist. The next hurdle was having someone I didn't know buy one of my pieces. And then I wanted someone with influence in the arts community to add me to their collection. Upon meeting each goal I set the bar higher. Perhaps that is just a tragic flaw in my personality- I'm certainly not proud of it, nor would I recommend such an orientation. But it's an inescapable dimension of my personality, so I have to deal with it.

So now I have reached a certain kind of plateau. I am in among a large number of other artists that have achieved some degree of very modest success. Of course now I want to distinguish myself further. Where does all of this lead? No amount of affirmation will ever be enough. And that's disturbing because that becomes a distraction from the work itself. Lately I have found myself putting way too much thought into how to expand my reputation as an artist. This ultimately feels demeaning. I wonder how the 22-year old MFA student deals with that. I'm at least supposed to have the maturity to take a broader view.

The other night I was at the bar, and I ran into several "important" figures in the Pittsburgh arts sphere. There was a collector and an assistant curator and some wealthy patrons. I don't know any of these people to talk to. Yet I know their names, and that bothers me. I realize that, if I could make a connection with them, it could expand my ability to advance my (a)vocation. I see other artists hobnobbing with them, and browning their noses, and I realize that I would probably be doing the same thing if given the chance. That realization makes me feel small. Like anybody else, I want success to come to me on my own terms.

I'm in a strange position in that I am too old (and maybe too realistic?) to be courting art stardom, but too young to have the mature outlook to be secure in my position. I recently attended a group show curated by a friend- someone who has been instrumental in introducing me to the arts community. Instead of being able to appreciate all the fine work by the many artists that I know so well, I was preoccupied with the thought that I wasn't asked to be included. It was a terrible feeling. Am I really so small that I can't simply appreciate the achievement of my friends without having a piece of it? God, that's bleak. Ach. Who wants to be an open sore? Not me, not me.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Should I Relate to Richard Russo?

It strikes me that a reader's appreciation of literature is largely defined by his/her present experiences. There is a time and a place for each author's work, and each individual will relate to the work differently. On its surface this observation is mostly obvious. A child's enjoyment of Dr. Seuss is likely going to reach an early high, and then recede a bit as (s)he matures. Later in life, if that grown child has children of his/her own, (s)he will most likely have reason to re-engage the work with a new appreciation based upon sentimentality. Similarly, teen readers naturally gravitate to certain authors, and so do mature adults.

While the phenomena I'm talking about may seen self-evident, it's surprising how little it gets taken into account once a reader enters young adulthood. Differences between people seem to get more nuanced once they have grown. No longer will book recommendations be based mainly on age appropriateness. Other factors take on significant roles in the process of forming preferences. But that's not to say that age is no longer a concern at all.

Surely most lifelong readers can recall authors, that they used to count among their favorites, whom they feel they have grown beyond. There is a certain set of authors that my generation discovered as young adults that semed to have been formative to our development. Beat generation authors like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Alan Ginsberg were a staple within my social circle. Many of us loved (and unfortunately tried to emulate) Charles Bukowski during our twenties. Poetry by Jim Carroll was also passed around frequently. The more sophisticated among us discovered Celine, Baudelaire, Fante and Rilke. Our slightly more conventional cohorts turned to Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonegut. While there is little reason why we should have had any less respect for these authors as we aged, we eventually got past them and on to other things. Much of that stuff would not be nearly so engaging if I discovered it now, as opposed to then.

Nowadays I find myself being drawn to the widest range of literature I have ever been exposed to. Yet my favorites tend to be authors who are (or were at the time of writing these particular works) roughly around my age. While I can enjoy the wisdom of the very old, or the dynamic energy of the young- I tend to relate better to those in the middle. But recently I have become alarmed at my preferences. Last year I discovered the literary edification of Richard Russo, a 58-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Russo's excellent works, which include protagonists struggling with the onset of middle age, include Nobody's Fool (1992) and Empire Falls (2001). After reading a couple of his books, it occurred to me to recommend Russo to my father, who has recently retired. It felt a bit strange to be suggesting an author based upon a perception that my father would relate to it- especially since I enjoyed the works so much.

Of course my father and I now share an interest in Russo's books. Recently my dad visited and dropped off a collection of Russo's short stories called, The Whore's Child (2002). His offering seems like a tacit acknowledgement that the difference in our ages has become less significant. While I'm not sure this brings me comfort, it does bring us closer. And it doesn't hurt that these are some damn fine stories.

The seven tales Russo included in this collection are strongly reminiscent of his longer works. In fact they could well be detached sections, removed to their current state directly from a series of unpublished novels. This may seem to be a fault to a short fiction purist, but not to someone with a full appreciation for a mature author who has fully articulated himself within a specific milieu. These characters are flawed men with hard-earned awareness and wisdom. They have bungled, or are in the process of bungling, their relationships. They have begun to face their mortality- not as an abstract idea, but rather as an inevitability attested to by surgical operations and behavioral restrictions. And while Russo fleshes out other types of characters, and shows his insight to be broader than we might have suspected, he shines most brightly when illuminating the inner lives of men in his very own position.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dave Eggers and McSweeney's.

Do you know who Dave Eggers is? He's the uber-hipster author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). This postmodern, self-referential memoir dealt with Egger's struggle to be the parent to his younger brother. Eggers has an impressive pedigree. Before writing his well-received debut (it was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction), he was an editor for, and he founded a literary magazine called Might. Since then he has written fiction and non-fiction of varying quality.

But it's not as a writer that Eggers has demonstrated his true genius. He is the founder of McSweeney's- an independent publishing house based in San Francisco. They publish a quarterly eponymous journal collecting the writings of some of the hottest young authors in America- George Saunders, Chris Offutt, Rick Moody, Michael Chabon, Sherman Alexie, Dan Chaon, Sarah Vowell, Neal Pollack, Denis Johnson, Jonathan Lethem, and David Foster Wallace. Each volume utilzes creative packaging to accentuate its particular theme. McSweeney's #17 came to the reader in the form of a stack of junk mail. Many issues contain original artwork as well. As the series has continued through the years, it has been able to attract established best-selling authors, such as T.C Boyle, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Michael Crichton, Roddy Doyle, Anne Beattie, and Robert Coover. It's an impressive achievement, and promises to be a centerpiece for American contemporary literature for a long time.

I've has the opportunity to read a couple of editions of this quarterly series. McSweeney's #13 was devoted entirely to alternative comics. Guest edited by the newly-iconic Chris Ware, it is a perfect primer for those unfamiliar with the possibilities of "comics-as-literature". Personal favorites from the volume include Daniel Clowes, R. Crumb, Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, Kim Deitch, and Chester Brown. It even has a wraparound cover in the style of the Sunday Funnies by Ware. I've also recently finished issue #10- McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, which was guest edited by University of Pittsburgh alumni Michael Chabon. It's a collection of pulp and genre stories by a mix of well-known and underheralded writers. Each contributor was asked to write a short story in a style that they were unaccustomed to. So we find Stephen King writing a strange mix of fantasy and western. Rick Moody tosses in a sci-fi entry of significant length. And Dan Chaon contributes an excellent psychological horror yarn. It's intended to be light reading, and so it lives up to its billing as a page-turner.

McSweeney's also offers a monthly magazine called The Believer that is filled with interviews, reviews and essays. It is rather scholarly, with long meandering pieces on arcane subjects, and it sometimes borders on pretension. Its occasionally unreadable content is balanced by lovely cover portraits by alternative comics artist Charles Burns. Out of this publication came another McSweeney's offering- a quarterly DVD magazine called Wholphin. This is a particularly tasty treat, and from the perspective of a film-lover, it does a great service by providing a forum for short films that would be hard to see otherwise. Past editions have contained early work by Dennis Hopper and Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election), shorts from little-known international directors, odd curios and jaw-dropping animation. This series reflects McSweeney's commitment to young and unknown artists of great talent. The consumer gets a lot of bang for the buck with Wholphin. They have even included a bonus disc serializing a political documentary about the "age of terror".

It might be difficult to stomach Eggers posture of self-aware "cool" if he had not contributed so much in terms of literary culture. His accounts of almost making it as a regular on MTV's Real World are a bit cloying. In addition, he actually boasts of the establishment of a pirate outfitting store in San Francisco. But he makes up for this by donating the store's proceeds to a non-profit tutoring center for public school students called 826 Valencia. A team of volunteers works one-on-one with Bay Area students on their writing skills. And since its foundation, the concept has been extended to five other locations across the country. Sales of McSweeney's publications provide additional funding for the project. They also offer scholarships and free workshops at their main location.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

What to do with Iran?

Once again I caught myself listening to conservative talk on AM radio. This time it was Glenn Beck, who has sat in for Rush in the past, whenever the fat man was having another one of his junky binges. It was startingly difficult to choke down my lunch while listening to this guy. Like many of his compatriots, he was whining for war with Iran. This was another round of noise reverberating through the conservative echo chamber. I could almost see him reading directly off the American Enterprise Institute's talking points sheet. Beck is saying these things because Cheney, Rove and Bush want him to say them.

You'd have to live in a bubble not to realize that the Bush Administration is targeting Iran for another round of "regime change". They are part of the "Axis of Evil" after all. Their nuclear activities are being presented as a threat to American security. Of course the argument seems entirely familiar. But if the Iranians truly are working on nuclear weapons, who can blame them? Their security is by no means assured by anything else at this point. I'm sure that US warships and air power demonstrations in the Perisan Gulf do nothing to inspire Iranian confidence. It's likely that the presence of American troops in every nation bordering Iran has an unsettling effect as well.

The United Nations has already passed economic sanctions against the roiling nation. It's only a matter of time before ordinary people in Iran begin to feel the effects. Financial assets of individuals and entities within the country have been seized. The suspension of Iran's nuclear program has been cited as a precondition for the normalizing of diplomatic relations.

I am not certain that we aren't already at war with Iran. It is widely reported by media sources outside the US that the Bush administration has already implemented plans to destabilize the Iranian government. That constitutes a secret war as far as I am concerned. Iran's detention of British military personnel is said to be an act meant to provoke a public response from the Western powers. Apparently there is a lot of civil unrest in Iran, and the Khomeinist Mullahs would like to deflect attention toward an outside threat.

It loooks extremely unlikely that the Iranians will get what they want out of this situation. They are gambling that the political will does not exist in the US citizenry to support another invasion. But what the people want may end up being beside the point. It's not like Bush and Cheney concern themselves with what the rest of the country wants. They'll marshall their base and goad the Republican party into calling for war. Apparently our ludicrously expanding national debt is not much of a concern for them. Their goal is to bankrupt the federal government, and they want their friends and cohorts to get paid through no-bid government military contracts. An invasion of Iran would suit their agenda. Whether or not the GOP will support Bush and Cheney's plans is another issue. The party already lacks a viable 2008 presidential candidate, and getting embroiled in yet another war is not going to improve their chances with an increasingly weary populace.

As much as Glenn Beck (or Hannity, Coulter, O'Reilly, Limbaugh, etc.) bemoans the fact that the American people lack the "stomach" for another invasion... it seems to be the case. Perhaps diplomacy and international cooperation will be the new strategy. Despite the fact that the Bush administration has little experience with this type of politics, it can't possibly be less effective than it has shown itself to be with the doctrine of pre-emption. Or could it?

Monday, March 26, 2007

A Provincial Town With Unbounded Promise.

Generally I feel positive about living in Pittsburgh. When I evaluate the conditions of my life, I realize that I am fairly satisfied. This city offers the majority of the amenities that I require in a home environment and there is enough to do if one is willing to put a bit of effort into finding it. It is not so small of a town that one needs to travel elsewhere to find interesting company or entertainment. Conversely, it is not so big a city that one needs to scratch and bite for survival. The pace is moderate, and opportunities are available if you are willing to put in the effort. Living here and working to achieve your goals won't beat you down.

But I will admit to periodic frustration stemming from the provincial nature of Pittsburgh. (I touched on this in an earlier post about the comparative benefits of Philly and the Burgh.) Having grown up on the east coast, I did have to adapt to a wholly different culture. It's likely that if you were born and/or raised in the midwest or the south, then you have no idea what I mean by "provincial". Instead you have direct experience with the concept. The Free Online Dictionary defines the word as such:

1. Of or relating to a province.
2. Of or characteristic of people from the provinces; not fashionable or sophisticated: "Well-educated professional women ... made me feel uncomfortably provincial" J.R. Salamanca.
3. Limited in perspective; narrow and self-centered.

Obviously I am using the term according to the second and third definitions. Equally obvious is that the characterization of a place as "provincial" is relative to an understanding and/or familiarity of somewhere else. It should be clear that I am not comparing Western PA to Yemen or Tanzania (or even West Virginia). In that kind of comparison, Pittsburgh looks positively cosmopolitan. But this isn't the case when you consider it alongside an east coast city.

In what ways do I find Pittsburgh provincial? One of the most glaring examples is in race relations. The Burgh is tremendously segregated, and not just in terms of physical locality. Not only do people choose to be in places with those who look like them, but they tend to sequester themselves mentally as well. There is a wide gulf in perception between black and white through most of the United States, but it is particularly noticeable in Pittsburgh. I think a big part of that is the fact that there isn't much of a middle ground here, racially speaking. Unlike in the eastern part of the state, there are very few latinos. It's way too easy to put people into dichotomous categories.

There's also a pervasive working class mentality lingering about town. This is largely a function of the past industrial glory of the city. As most Americans are aware, Pittsburgh used to be the center of the steel industry. Of course that time has past. The population has steadily declined since the steel mills moved abroad. But many natives cling to their memories of that time. It often seems to me that the locals are stuck in some non-existent imaginary past. And as a consequence, the remaining population is slow to embrace change and progressive ideas. Of course outsiders and tourists may find that quality "quaint", but it gets pretty irritating if you are commited to living here in the present.

Pittsburgh is a town that has its FM radio dial permanently tuned to classic rock. It's a place where they put cole slaw and fries on your sandwich, and that's considered fine dining. It's also a town where they are still trying hard to come to grips with the work of Andy Warhol... twenty years after he died in the very center of contemporary culture. Like the great artist, many who grow up here flee to more sophisticated cities. Pittsburgh strikes them as moving too glacially into the modern era. But there is hope, as outsiders flow into town to take advantage of the many benefits and the almost infinite potential of this place. The slow process of development means that even people in the middle class can have an impact on the evolution of Pittsburgh. It's the American city of bridges, and one day it will inevitably complete another that spans this chasm of stagnation and lost dreams, and leads its inhabitants into the future.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Talkin' bout Jee---sus.

Spring is here in full force. I took the liberty of claiming the day for my own- concerned not at all about anyone else's agenda, I did exactly what I wanted to do. I drove around town, visited with some friends and took myself out to eat. I bought some art and some books. I could have gone to a drawing session, but I reveled in my own laziness. The only conciliation I'm making is this blog entry. And that means that this was a day well spent.

But nothing can ever be completely without complication for me, and so I took some time to think about Jesus. Yeah... that's right- Jesus Christ. Now I can imagine a collective groan, and a steep plummet in readers of this blog. Because that name right there is a buzz word(s). For most of my friends and loved ones it is a cue to shut off, turn the channel, and/or redirect attentiion elsewhere. I understand that, especially in our contemporary political climate. Many people don't want anything to do with Christianity. And the truth is that many of its adherents are sanctimonious blowhards. So for this reason, I'm hesitant to even mention the subject.

I'm not talking about faith here. I'm no "true believer" or fundamentalist. It makes no sense trying to discuss faith in a logical manner. It belongs somewhere else. I grew up going to church, but I have no connection to organized religion now. And I'm not interested in changing that. But having thus spoken, I must say that the concept of Jesus (Son of God) does intrigue me. And so does the historical context. And so does the lore and culture surrounding it. So unlike most of my people, I don't run the other way when I hear that name.

On one level, I conceive of Jesus as a revolutionary of his day. He was an ascetic, and the story goes that as a young man he upset the money-changers in the temple. Because he knew how his people's faith was being exploited. The goddamned guy sure seems like a socialist to me. He ws willing to put it all on the line and upset the power structure. He had the temerity to call out the Pharisees. But I think that's an aspect of his story that gets short shrift in this society. And that's a mighty shame, because we are surrounded by Children of the Pharisees. But see... in a Capitalist society, calling him a Marxist would be like calling him a child molester. So we'll leave that right there.

I also think about the historical Jesus as a kind of enlightened initiate. A man who, through his own experience with mistakes (sin) and flaws, found some special understanding. He became aware that he was part of God. And by God, I don't mean some stern patriarch with a flowing mane, who commands his worshippers to slaughter the infidel and take his/her land. Call it by whatever name you can identify it by (energy, spirit, the Tao). It simply means that there is something beyond yourself with which to connect. I believe Jesus was trying to spread this knowledge. I don't think he meant to put himself at the top of a hierachy of purity. Like us, he was a material being. But he was also concerned with getting beyond the limits of self. And he was one in a long line of folks that seem to pop up whenever we need to remind ourselves that we don't exist in isolation. But we've been damned by the distortions of those who have learned to use his story for their own selfish ends. And that's a shame.

There's no way to avoid the fact that Christianity is inextricably bound up with Western society. Pretending it's not there is not going to make it go away. Instead of reflexively tuning out whenever someone evokes his name, perhaps we should instead listen closely to what is being said behind the actual words that are being spoken. Maybe we should consider the context in which the Word is being used. Because it's ultimately a conveyance that can illuminate intention. Faith and neglect are partners in a complex dance of distraction and illusion.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

My Earliest Works.

Last weekend my father came into town for a visit. He brought with him a box of my elementary school assignments that he and my mother had saved. There was a variety of stuff in that box, from writing assignments to drawings. Whether it was a simple exercise of learning how to print letters, or a crude mathematics work sheet- it was saved. We had a lot of fun going through the papers, and I felt a strange sense of vulnerability as I picked through it all. I don't think that any of it was work I did after age eight, and much of it was from kindergarten through second grade. It was strange how little recognition I had for any of it. If it hadn't been signed with my name by my little hand and collected by my parents, it could be the work of any small kid. But then again, I have physical proof that some psychological characteristics stay consistent over time. Truth be told, there are elements of a strange darkness right from the start.

A few of the drawings depict eerie looking clowns. They are fairly well-executed for being done so young, but they are cetainly not what you would call innocent. I seemed to have a penchant for the seedy side of the childhood psyche. There was also an absurdist drawing of a duck in an oversized glass. It is titled "Solid", and is captioned "I do not take the shape of the container". A very strange selection to represent something with mass and density. It was M.'s absolute favorite of the drawings. I favored one of the clown drawings, as it relates to certain similar portrayals by local "outsider" artists, yet with better articulation. That one got a frame.

Most interesting are some of the writings. On one page with over-sized lines there is the shortest story I have (probably) ever written. It is signed with my first name and last initial, and goes like this:

"One time a ghost was nere-by (sic.) But the ghost was good. And he saw a bunny. And he came up. But he did not see the ghost. The ghost saw him. The ghost still saw him.
the end."

To my mid-thirtyish sensibility, that's pretty damn evocative. How did I know the ghost was good? What was I saying about the nature of spectres, and their relationship to bunnies? And why did I insist on emphasizing the ghost's observation? I'll never know the answers.

There was also a collection of poems that a "visiting poet" put together for the school district. I have two pieces included. It is dated 1978-79, so I know that I was eight years old when it was put together. Looking through the little booklet, I see that most of the writing is all sweetness and light. Here is an example by one William Todora, called "My Pets":

I have two gold fish, color orange,
Their names are Sally and Sam.

I feeed my guinea pigs lettuce and
I give him fresh water.
My mother cleans the cage.

I have ten cats.
Their names are Candy, Caffin, White
Petter, Blacky, Pudding, Tuffy,
Kitty, Kitty Kitty, Puss.

Pretty cute, huh? That's about what you'd expect from a grade school kid. Watch your face fold into an involuntary grin at the words "Kitty Kitty". This little kid seems well-adjusted, if a bit crowded in his domestic surroundings.

Here's my first one in the booklet (note the tone set by the first line...):

Death is very dark.
Thought is by the fire or candle.
Reading in bed when it is raining.
Jesus in the morning is very relaxing.
There is no sight on Christmas night.
Quiet is not talking
Or at least not talking to someone
Quiet is asking a question to a watermelon.

WTF?! At least I gave props to the Son of God. But we've now established that I had already started talking to myself at age eight. What a literary journey... I got from "Death" to "watermelon" in 52 words. There is obviously some hint of a disorganized personality here.

Ok... here's another selection from another kid to get things back into focus... this one is courtesy of a very young Danny Gonzalez:

Wind is quiet.
Socks are soft and a teddy bear is
A cracking fire is like the sand.
A candle is like a nat (sic? no clue here)
A rug is like a flower.

Great. Do you have your inner calm back? I hope so, because here is my other inclusion in "Poetry... the Gift of Words (1978-79)":

A Dream

My dream is a nightmare.
I've had it five times at least.
I think I'll have it again.
My mom asked me if I wanted to go in
a shoe outlet.
I said no.
Then a robber cracked a window
dressed in tan,
Blonde hair and not beard or scars or
anything like that.
I hollered "No! No!" He got captured
and I talked to the mayor.
Then I went home.

Once again I set a bleak tone right from the start. And yes, I do get around to a happy ending... one might assume. I got to talk to the mayor! And all I had to do was survive an abduction. My description of the perp is telling... maybe this is why people with blonde hair set my jaw on end? Maybe this is why I avoid shoe outlets? The sad thing is that I somehow knew that this dream was going to keep recurring, even after I put the words down on paper. I actually do remember this nightmare. Odd how it's the fears that seem to stick the longest.

It was so very strange to get a glimpse into the mindset of a child... and to know that this particular child was me. The thoughts and emotions contained in these pieces have long been forgotten. And yet somehow I recognize them as something familiar at the core of my self. It's invaluable to have these artifacts of my past. I'm grateful to my parents for having saved them.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Why Should We Care About a Few Republican Prosecutors?

So now that we are a quarter year into the new and improved checks-and-balances of a mixed party government, what quality of bipartisanship are we seeing? More scandal from the Bush administration, and plenty of dithering on the part of the "opposition party". The latest flap concerns the politically-motivated firings of eight federal prosecutors. When they were originally relieved of their duties, they were sent on their way with comments that their dismissals were due to performance-related issues. At least that was the line the President was feeding the press. And that's what the Attorney General's Office told the Senate. But that was a lie.

It turns out that the sacked prosecutors were the victims of shady politics. Evidently some of them were not actively pursuing voter registration fraud charges that some far right Republicans were calling for against Democrats in the wake of the 2004 elections. Apparently these prosecutors failed to act on these charges because there was no evidence of registration fraud. But had these government employees followed the lead of their commander-in-chief and his justice department, they would have simply fabricated the necessary evidence. That's the way to go after your enemies, or so it seems in this post 9-11 world. Others among the former US attornies had made the mistake of initiating investigations against Republican lawmakers (like Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham). One in particular resisted a Republican lawmaker's pressure to rush forward a corruption trial of local Democrats in order to effect the November elections. Excuse me guys, but you are either WITH the president or AGAINST him. Get it right.

Bush and Co. have offered the Congress the "opportunity" to meet with key aides (Karl Rove, Harriet Miers) involved in the scandal. But any meetings must happen in closed sessions. And the White House refuses to allow the aides to testify under oath. And they refuse to have any transcript made during the "talks". And they refuse to let Congress examine relevant e-mail messages from the White House. Why might these conditions be considered a prerequisite to meeting with Congress? Do they intend to lie?

The executive department claims that it is protected by the separation of governmental powers. This is a strange tactic, coming from an executive branch that has constantly stepped over the line, impinging on the legislative branch's authority by issuing a record-setting amount of signing statement challenges. The Bush Administration has NEVER shown concern for a healthy balance of federal powers. The President himself has already said that he will refuse to honor any forthcoming subpoenas issued by Congress. To justify this breach of law, he cites "executive privilege". But he doesn't have any constitutional privilege to blow off the Congress. Just like his concept of the "unitary executive", he seems to be making this all up as he goes along.

The most disturbing aspect of this whole debacle is the Bush Administration's unstated (but easily inferred) position that they have no accountability to "the people". This is not a situation in which they can raise the (increasingly overused) spectre of "national security". The public has the right to know if these federal employees were fired for political motives. The executive department serves at the behest of the American people. As a body comprised of the elected representatives of the populace, the Congress has an obligation to hold the President to the truth. If they let Bush and his people dictate the terms of this investigation, then they have once again failed us all.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act

In January, Senators Ted Kennedy (D.-MD) and Mike Enzi (R.-WY) introduced a bill (The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, or GINA) to protect the public from having their genetic information used against them. This legislation is aimed at keeping employers and health insurers from withholding jobs or coverage based upon a genetic predisposition for a medical disorder. This is a bipartisan legislative effort that George Bush has already agreed to support. In fact similar bills have been passed in the Senate before (2003 and 2005), but each time the House of Representatives has stopped them.

The mapping of the genetic code is arguably the most important contemporary advance in medical science. Without privacy protection, it is assumed that many patients will refuse to fully embrace DNA therapy. Imagine that your physician recommends that you have your genetic profile (or "genome") created. He wants to assess your risk for developing a number of diseases and, where appropriate, prescribe measures to minimize those risks. You are about to consent to his plan, but then you hesitate, having read that insurance companies may gain access to your records. Will you take the chance, knowing that your premiums could skyrocket as a result? You may even be dropped from your plan. Perhaps your employer will acquire your health records and be prejudiced against offering you that big promotion. Could prospective employers consider your health records in their decision of whether or not to hire you? What's your level of confidence that this won't happen?

Indeed such concerns are even limiting the progress of current genetic research. Scientists are having a hard time convincing people to become subjects of DNA studies. Many otherwise well-meaning individuals don't want to participate if researchers can't guarantee that the information gleaned from them won't someday come back to haunt them.

So who's against this legislation? The most common argument I have heard against GINA is that it is going to cause "frivolous lawsuits". I've always found this little piece of vernacular amusing. How do we define "frivolous"? Surely the complainant would not characterize his/her suit as such. This type of rhetoric is always trotted out by large corporations who want to limit their legal liability. Find a controversial issue relating to the insurance industry, and surely this phrase tarries nearby. Of course the health insurance companies are "very concerned" that GINA could effect the quality of health care provided. We should only hope so.

Then there are the free market folk from the American Enterprise Institute. They say that genetic discrimination is too new to constitute any kind of real problem. They fear that any sort of legislative regulation will inevitably broaden to include "unintended consequences" (which are not specified). Representative John Kline (R.-MN) echoes such fears with the warning, " "We don't necessarily need a broad, federal mandate. If legislation is needed -- and the jury is still out -- we should target the solution to the problem, rather than going after a mosquito with a machine gun."

Even if GINA passes, there are still some thorny aspects of genome use that may need to be addressed by the federal government. Throughout the Twentieth Century, states have had various sterilization laws on the books, aimed at reducing the incidence of genetic defects such as mental retardation, mental disease, epilepsy, blindness, and hearing impairments. With readily available information about the genetic composition of individuals- how do ethics change regarding procreation and disclosure? If a person becomes aware of the presence of a gene that could cause a recessive disorder, what ethical responsibility do they have in sharing this information with a prospective mate?

And what about using genome information for law enforcement. It is now common for detectives to pursue DNA samples from suspects during criminal investigations. What are the laws regarding this information? Can agencies compile a nationwide database of so-called DNA "fingerprints"? Could they eventually merge their nascent criminal profiling techniques with the database in order to identify suspects that match the characteristics of the profile?

When it comes to genetic privacy, as in many other fields of scientific endeavor- the philosophy of ethics and morality has lagged behind the quality of advancing technology. The decisions our leaders make (or fail to make) are going to have lasting repercussions. I would prefer that legislators err on the side of caution, and provide individuals with as much protection as possible. Corporations will, by their very nature, exploit any information available for the greatest potential profit. It is up to our elected leaders to draw the line.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Matt Cimber , "The Witch Who Came From the Sea" (1976).

One of the great joys of the DVD revolution has been the number of obscure screen gems to discover. After collecting and watching movies for a nunber of years, it's easy to believe that I've seen everything worthwhile. But then something pops up and reminds me what I loved about the search in the first place. Once in a while I can still find a film that leaves me shaking my head in amazement. Tonight I experienced just such a movie, a limited release from 1976 called The Witch Who Came From the Sea.

There was no way to tell what this movie was going to be like from its packaging. It almost looks like its marketed toward the pre-adolescent crowd. But if you brought this home for your kids, you'd be making a huge mistake. Even if you intend to show this to your adult friends or loved ones, I'd advise you to use discretion. Read some reviews elsewhere. I enjoy this sort of stuff, but you may not. Don't expect stellar acting. This is a melodramatic psycho-thriller, bordering on exploitation. The dialogue is often delivered awkwardly, but the word-choice is so strange that the disjointed conversations tend to enhance the film's surreal tones.

You learn fairly quickly that Mollie, our hero, is deeply disturbed. She seems to get on well with her nephews, but at the same time she is experiencing disturbing visions. Mollie is a horn-dog certainly, but there's some trauma flittering about on the periphery of her libido. Her sister seems to have a clue, but Mollie is obviously too detached from her past to escape the fantasy world she has constructed in order to forget. Her peculiar psychosis is triggered by images of football players and rugged-looking actors on television. Living in Santa Monica, and working at a beach-side dive bar, she has the opportunity to meet these stars. Acting out her subconscious dream world, Mollie soon runs afoul of reality. As the director slowly reveals to us the source of her pain, we watch her spiral into a nasty mental breakdown.

The groovy atmosphere of this movie makes it especially enjoyable. The Boathouse (Mollie's place of employment) is a beat-down and gritty drinking hole, meant for the type of seventies lounge lizard that has a pirate fetish. The proprietor is the rough-around-the-edges, but basically warm-hearted old salt, "Long John". He's obviously got a soft spot for our hero, and in a way he redeems the male gender in this uber-feminist tale of horror. The viewer is also invited to a sinister tattoo parlor run by "Jack Dracula", and a Hollywood sex party at the swanky pad of TV actor "Billy Batt". Cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween, The Thing) keeps the look of the film visually compelling, and there are a few low-rent (but effective) bits of visual trickery.

Director Matt Cimber spares us from the most disgusting and gory imagery- stuff that we could well expect from what we know is actually happening onscreen. But the power of suggestion might be enough to sicken you just a bit. There are implications of genital manipulation, incestual rape, and evisceration. Somehow all these elements didn't keep me from kicking back and enjoying the bygone charms of the free-wheeling seventies. And the hammy performance of Millie Perkins carries the story through its pill-induced confusion. Get out the TV trays and fill your martini glasses, because you are in for a treat.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Confidence Games.

Although I'm interested in the true crime genre, I've never been all that intrigued by confidence men. I suppose it's because I find their general personality profile unlikable. The fast-talking, frenetic, hail-fellow-well-met attitude goes right through me. In the two years I spent working at a public relations firm downtown, I met a lot of guys that were only a trivial circumstance away from having to work a street con. These guys had the outstanding ability to glad-hand every sucker they encountered, making each rube feel special and valued. They had an amazing facility for lying directly to people's faces. And they practiced the art of deception all the time. They didn't leave it at work. We'd go to a party, and they'd be trying to outdo each other.

Even in the realm of film, my appreciation of confidence games is limited. I've watched some of the better ones. David Mamet is the master of these films- he is the writer of The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross and House of Games. These are among the best of the kind. Yet despite their undeniable quality, there's something inherently unlikable about both the cons and marks. Con men work to exploit the most unflattering qualities of humanity- a grasping need for acceptance, overreaching ambition or sheer greed. And who are the "victims"? Anyone with "larceny in their heart". Sometimes we see such absurd extremes of gullibility, that our sympathy is replaced by contempt. You might wonder how some people can be so stupid.

I do appreciate the jargon of the confidence game. Even the terms "short" and "long" con evoke images of wise-cracking men with fedoras and dark grey suits. There is a crackling charm to the argot of the classic street con... the big mitt, behind the six, a beef, closing the gates, cop and blow, deadhead, a fly gee, got his nose open, lop-eared, the Nigerian Letter, the Pigeon Drop, on the barrelhead, peeking the poke, queer the deal, the send, tossing the broads, etc. This stuff is priceless. Between con and carny talk (which often overlap, for what should be obvious reasons) , there is enough salt to flavor the blandest of speech.

Once in awhile I come across a long con that intrigues me... something so elaborate that I just have to admire its conception. The most compelling confidence swindler is the one that dedicates his/her life to a single fraud. Such is the case of Oliver Hartzell. I just finished Richard Rayner's Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World's Greatest Confidence Artist . In this book, Rayner describes how Hartzell got involved with one of the biggest pipe dreams of the twentieth century- the quest to legally wrangle Sir Francis Drake's unclaimed fortune" from Great Britain.

The rough-hewn and bankrupt farmer from Iowa was able to transform himself, and wrest millions of dollars from more than a hundred thousand midwesterners during the Great Depression. In return, these plain folk received shares in a fortune estimated at $100 billion. Hartzell employed numerous agents stateside while he lived a luxurious lifestyle off of the proceeds, pretending to be involved in legal maneuvers in England. This went on for at least 15 years, as both American and British authorities tried to figure out how to curtail Hartzell's activities. He was finally put down by an agent of the post office, and he spent the last years of his life as an inmate at a hospital for the criminally insane. By the end, Hartzell had actually convinced himself that the Drake fortune was real.

It sounds absurd that ordinary thinking people would fall for such a scheme. Surely the modern American is more savvy than that? Think again. Apparently a California man was recently caught operating a diffferent version of Hartzell's con. He claimed to know of some unreleased Marvin Gaye songs, and solicited funds for a legal battle to gain control of the material. Of course these recordings did not exist, but the possibility was just convincing enough to get people to invest in the hope of a big pay-off.

There is nothing that would make you more vulnerable to a confidence trickster than the conceit that you could never fall for one of their games. I once lost a considerable amount of money that I procured as "fast cash" on my credit cards. This was a business investment for a store that actually did exist. I was certain that I was going to be paid back, and I thought I knew my business partner. His con was so good that I didn't even realize it for what it was. Confidence games are not a thing of the past. In fact, with the advent and development of the Internet, they are actually proliferating. It's in your best interest to protect yourself, and the people you care for, by getting to know what confidence games are being played. This site would be a good place to start your research.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Blackwater USA: Onward Christian Soldiers.

In the wake of the Iraqi invasion of 2003, American citizens became aware that the Bush administration and the US military were employing private security companies to help "stabilize" the beleagured country. This elicited a wave of controversy due to the fact that these companies could feasibly be used to avoid public accountability for the actions of American military forces. In addition, there is no accurate way for the public to make an accurate accounting of the way these contractors are spending US tax dollars. While we are gradually becoming acclimated to the idea that we will never know how the government administers the grotesquely increasing military budget, the use of mercenaries adds another layer of obfuscation. It was even suggested that these mercenary soldiers might act in a particularly partisan manner.

Iraq wasn't the first, or the last, place where these private security contractors were employed. They were used in the previous invasion of Afghanistan, as well as in Lousiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In the latter disaster it was rumored that they participated in law enforcement. Of course this choice was higly troubling. This is a convenient method for the federal government to do an end run around posse comitatus laws (these protect us from the use of regular military forces for law enforcement purposes in domestic situations).

One company that continually appears on the roles of independent contractors employed by the Bush administration is Blackwater USA. This private military contractor and security firm was founded by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL and the son of an auto parts magnate. When his father died, he quit the Navy and sold the Prince Corporation for $1.4 billion. He invested the money in Blackwater. The corporation currently boasts possession of "the largest privately owned firearms training facility in the nation" in rural North Carolina. The vice chairman of the company commented in 2006 that Blackwater is able to provide a full brigade-strength sized unit (1500-3500 personnel) of military professionals for use in humanitarian efforts and low intensity conflicts. The Blackwater Academy also offers coursework in scout/sniper training, language/cultural immersion, military-grade weapons, and tactical training (civilians welcome).

The Blackwater firm made a name for itself when four of its employees were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah. They were killed by a grenade, their bodies were burnt to a crisp, and they were suspended from a bridge crossing the Euphrates River. The graphic photos released by the world media enraged US patriots, but drew attention to the thorny complexities of using private contractors as combatants in a theater of war. In 2005 and 2007, eleven Blackwater contractors were killed as their helicopters were shot down over Iraq. A total of 30 employees have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghansistan. But Blackwater and other private military contractors are not legally required to carry life insurance for their "operators". Under the Defense Base Act, the burden of compensation for survivors of the fallen rests on the American taxpayer instead.

Blackwater (along with their offshore subsidaries and affiliates like Greystone, Air Quest, and Presidential Airways) currently has over half a billon dollars worth of US government contracts. Some of their operations are based in foreign countries, where they can draw prospective employees from a range of backgrounds. They have recruited foreign nationals from some of the most repressive military regimes in the world (Chile, South Africa). Their aviation activities in Iraq have included rendition flights. And until very recently, private contractors in Iraq have enjoyed virtual immunity from legal prosecution.

Word is that Blackwater USA is making a bid to acquire some of the $7 billion worth of UN contracts in Darfur. To that end, they have been making a concentrated effort to seem just a little less bad-assed, and a bit more humanitarian. Their company webpage used to feature pictures of ninja-like commandos. Now they have a photo of their employees in the midst of smiling third world children. This is a big change in PR efforts. In fact, their previous perception management was illuminated by the choice of web bloggers to refer to Blackwater Aviation's flight group as "Ass Monkeys". What claim can they make on compassion?

Founder/owner Erik Prince sits on the boards of far rightwing organizations such as Christian Freedom International and the Institute of World Politics. He was an intern for the first president Bush (while Dick Cheney was reconfiguring the defense department to allow greater degrees of outsourcing). He also interned for the Family Research Council. He has campaigned for Patrick Buchanan. The Prince family is famous for pumping tens of millions of dollars into the Christian Conservative movement. The son is a chip off the old block. He is an outspoken critic of homosexuals, the Clean Air Act and governmental oversight of corporations. Unfortunately he's also the general for a rabid "brigade-sized" force of highly trained mercenaries. The conjunction of force, war profiteering and extreme political ideology is a grave threat to the future of the United States.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Installation Olympic Theater @ The Mattress Factory.

Last evening I drove John M. (owner of the Digging Pitt gallery) to the Mattress Factory for Installation Olympic Theater. This event was conceived and coordinated by Pittsburgh-based artist Tom Sarver, who is fortunate to have his own museum this year. The idea was to gather three teams of local artists to compete in building installation pieces. The artists had to use tools and materials provided by Sarver, and complete their works within two hours. They were allowed to bring a single suitcase with materials of their own choosing. The competition was judged by four jurists; including the aforementioned John Morris, Heather Pesanti (assistant curator of the Carnegie Museum of Art), Owen Smith (assistant curator of the Mattress Factory, and Bill O'Driscoll (City Paper Arts and Entertainment Editor).

The judges had to consider several components in their evaluation of the work. Since this event was aimed at attracting audience members that might not usually attend art events, the performance element was stressed. The artists were called on to come up with a creative use for the materials provided ahead of time. Finally, the aesthetic value of the finished pieces was considered. The teams were led by T. Foley, Tavia La Follette and Ben Kinsley. Foley's group was chosen from a tight-knit clique of locals who are involved in various multimedia artistic outlets. Ben Kinsley headed up a selection of CMU MFA students. Tavia La Follette's tribe consisted of artists mainly concerned with performance-based arts.

Having arrived early as a guest, I got to meander about beforehand and get a feel for the prevailing attitude of the competitors. They were generally loose and informal, and displayed a healthy sense of humor. Foley's group were dressed in matching blue coveralls, and resembled a working class, mixed-gender version of the 80's band DEVO. The MFAs appeared as if they were preparing for an important portfolio revue, and the theater people were looking singularly wacky. The last group actually employed a cheerleader, who came out at the beginning costumed as the the team's suitcase. As things got underway, a prevailing sense of chaos descended upon the event.

I wandered in between the main floor and the cafe, snapping pictures and availing myself of the free refreshments. The event was fairly well-attended, and people were sure to step carefully as the artists clamored around their 12 foot-by-12 foot work spaces. Each team employed tactics to involve the audience members, and so there were consistent opportunities to get involved in the action. Watching the pieces slowly take shape amidst the frenzied activity was beguiling, yet often confounding. I was feeling rather tired, and wishing that I could fast forward until the evening's end. Sarver provided ample entertainment, spinning vinyl and getting assistance from friends Liz hammond, Mike Cuccaro, and a female singer-songwriter (I didn't catch her name). He also found time to play emcee and walk about, interviewing the participants and generally getting underfoot. There was even a mini-contest, with two volunteers from the audience seated head-to-head on the stage, working for fifteen minutes on their own installations using two shoeboxes full of materials.

The judges looked a bit bewildered, but it seemed to me that the general response to the spectacle was positive. Unfortunately my endurance started to flag, and I took off about an hour before the scheduled finish. I never got to see the completed installations. But from the overall tenor of the event, the focal point was the artistic process itself. It was a party, through and through, and jigsawed naturally with the Tom Museum's mission statement- "Art for Everyone".

Although I didn't see the whole thing, I definitely had my fill for the night. I'll definitely be looking for the proposed continuation of what is supposed to be an Olympic Theater Series... Sarver hints at future events including sculpture, painting, and drawing.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Bona Terra: A Long Overdue Visit to an Excellent Addition.

I written a lot on this blog about hometown Pittsburgh. I've only briefly mentioned the part of town that I live in. It's a quiet working class neighborhood on the edge of the city. It's affordable, safe, relatively clean and has the benefit of being located in an excellent school district. Overall, I am very happy with my decision to buy a house here. But like any other place, it has its flaws.

Sharpsburg is a traditionally Italian town that served the purpose of being the gateway for poor immigrants into the city. In the very beginning, it was known as the stomping grounds of the Heinz family (of ketchup fame). Over time it assumed a new identity as Pittsburgh embraced its industrial identity. At one time S-burg was incredibly congested, with many families living in each building. As it grew it attracted the inevitable interest groups that tied together the community, and gave it a feeling of community. The power structure of S-burg happened to be tied into organized crime. This lent the neighborhood an insulatory vibe, as the "big men" consolidated their hold over the place. Although the era when the mafia reached its peak of influence is long past now, there are still remnants of the old guard mentality in place. The descendants of those men still represent the controlling interests in town. This has served to promote a continuity, but conversely it has also stood in the way of progressive change. The homogeneous nature of the community is a mixed blessing.

The business district on Main Street has tremendous potential. It is compact and centrally located. There is enough of a population to support an array of quality businesses, and S-burg is surrounded by other neighborhoods that could reasonably supply a supplementary consumer base. Yet there is no grocery store. There is no coffee shop. There is a single gas station. There's a butcher, a barber, a karate school, a few restaurants and bars on every block. And there are a lot of properties standing idle. Why is that? Because local government is operating under a set of notions that were operative forty or more years ago. Many of the inhabitants are of advanced age, have lived here their entire lives, and are suspicious of any kind of change.

The general tenor of the place can be easily experienced by frequenting the town's business establishments. If you are not a familiar face, then you experience a range of service that starts with neglect and approaches hostility. You are offered the minimum, and expected to be satisfied with it. Who are you to question the way things are done? Unless you were born and raised here, then you are a mere interloper- to be tolerated, at best. This provinciality can be frustrating. Certainly it preserves a certain quaint charm that permeates the place, but at the same time, it is making S-burg an anachronism. Surely without an infusion of new thinking and diverse ideas, S-burg will become mired in place, and be left behind in a gradual transformation of the entire Pittsburgh area. This would be a tragedy, and a waste of immense potentiality.

An illustrative case in point is the single four-star restaurant in S-burg. It features an unassuming storefront that belies its exceptionality. Bona Terra's chef does his shopping every single morning, picking only the freshest, in-season ingredients to make his daily menu. Everything is superb, and the service is extraordinary. Attention is paid to every detail, and the dining experience is unmatched anywhere else in Western PA. It is a singularly impressive achievement... yet it is completely unheralded within the neighborhood. It opened in 2003, yet the mayor of S-burg has still not stopped by to greet the proprietor. But solicitations for local charities have been consistent since the opening of the restaurant. The affable host related a story that indicates the value the business community places on Bona Terra. He said that when they first opened, he would send waiting customers next door to the bar, with instructions that the drinks were on him. He continued the practice until the owners of the bar asked him to stop. They said that they didn't want him to send people over that they didn't know. Bona Terra's clientele are prepared to drop $50 per person for a meal, yet they weren't welcome at the corner bar?! I would suspect that I was being told a tall tale if I wasn't already aware of the climate of welcome in S-burg. Fortunately the bar in question has changed management, and the new people have embraced Bona Terra. Could this be the beginning of a happy trend?

I can't tell you how refreshing it was to be greeted and served by a professional staff that cares enough to provide the very best dining experience available anywhere, let alone in S-burg. The good people of Bona Terra have set an example for the entire community, but so far it has gone unnoticed. I can only hope that more of my fellow residents take the time to stop in and see what is on offer. Fortunately the restaurant has earned a loyal customer base from without. It's not going anywhere and it's attracting folks to the neighborhood. Perhaps a few wily entrepreneurs will take a lesson from a true success and emulate Bona Terra's commitment to excellence. If so, the vast possibilities of S-burg have a chance of being realized.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Choice For Domestication..

Three of my housemates are cats, and due to my experiences in living with them I've thought a lot about the phenomena of animals choosing to cohabitate with humans. For awhile we let our cats come and go as they pleased, and they always returned. No doubt they appreciate the food and shelter, but human beings are prone to sentimentality- and for that reason I've always suspected that there is something more at play.

Biologists label cats as "exploitive captives". This refers to the fact that they exploit their relationship with humans, rather than suffer from it. Unlike dogs they are generally not tethered to specific tasks that people expect them to perform (such as tracking, security, or simple companionship). It's true that they have served a useful purpose as rodent-killers, but I can attest to the reality that there are some domesticated cats that show little interest (or a degraded ability) as hunters. But cats have been known to hunt at least 1000 different species of animal for food. Yet archaeological research suggests that humans and cats have maintained a close proximity in living quarters for 8000 years.

The housecats we live with today are descendants of the Felis Lybica- the Arabian and North African form of the wildcat. Those feline progenitors simply moved into human settlements, presumably to take advantage of the easy food and escape from the elements. As humanity developed agriculture and confronted the problems of food storage, the indispensability of felines became apparent. Cats actively protected the food supply in the granaries, tracking down and consuming vermin such as rats and mice.

In Egypt, cats achieved the status of religious symblols. They were so venerated that to kill a cat was to commit a capital crime. The animals were offered the honor of mummufication before burial. It so happens that indigenous Peruvians also worshipped the cat- as a God of copulation and fertility. In North America, domestic cats were evidently introduced by European ships, upon which they were used as ratters. The majority of these were polydactyls (meaning that they had more than the ordinary number of digits), presumably chosen because the extra claws made them better hunters.

As successful as cats have proven to be at living among humans, they nevertheless retain the ability to revert to the wild conditions of their past. When left to their own devices, they often confound expectations by forming feral cat colonies. Many are under the misconception that cats are solitary animals, but that is not the case. In fact they are highly social... but without a pack mentality or social survival strategy. That means that they take care of their basic needs on their own. While they are territorial animals, they also recognize neutral territory and can co-exist quite nicely with other cats.

That's abundantly evident when I see my cats with their noses in each other's assholes.

I often find myself wondering what the next animal to choose domestication will be. I'm certain that rats and mice have already submitted their bids, but I can't think of any reason why they would be welcomed in most domestic situations. Perhaps the raccoon has a better chance. I know a guy who is often woken (in his bedroom) by a neighborhood coon tapping its claw against his leg. This usually happens when my friend has forgotten to fill the cat bowl. This interloping furry creature seems to be fairly gentle in its approach, and that makes me believe that it has potential as a pet.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

David Simon, "Homicide" (1991).

I'm not into those hour-long police procedural dramas on network television. In fact, I don't spend much time watching television at all. But my avid interest in reading true crime literature has made me wonder why I don't give those shows a chance. David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991) is a particularly intriguing case in point. I've never been tempted to tune into the series that was inspired by the book, yet I looked forward to reading the 631-page trade paperback. Regardless of the apparent contradiction, I am glad I did. Simon's book is comprehensive, colorful, and entertaining in its depiction of the darkest corners of the an urban police homicide department.

Simon, who was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, decided to initiate a substantial insider investigation of several squads of Baltimore detectives. He was given incredible access to the work routines and crimes scenes of thirty investigators for an entire year (1988). At the conclusion of his observations, Simon spent two years writing the book. But the focus of Homicide is not on his process- throughout the work the author is invisible. He wrote from a third person omniscient perspective. This is an odd choice for a work of investigative journalism, but somehow he pulls it off. The approach pulls the reader into the complicated, morally complex world of the department, without the usual distraction of running commentary.

The stories Simon tells do not require a lot of authorial pontification. In fact, that would just get in the way. The characters we get to know are fully-fleshed human beings working under intensely trying circumstances. They consistently see the very worst capabilities of their fellow men. Yet they aren't lionized by Simon. Sure... anyone who spends an entire year with a group of men engaged in serving the public good under harsh conditions is going to be vulnerable to getting caught up in a certain esprit de corps. But Simon seems to have made a real effort to stay detached, in order to give himself the proper objectivity required to relate the full spectrum of behaviors and philosophies that the men display. So we get to know these detectives... including the parts of themselves that may not be noble or politically correct.

We also have an exceptional window into how a murder investigation really works. Simon takes us through every stage of the process, from the initial discovery of a body, all the way through to a court trial. Stops along the way include the interrogation room, the coronor's office, witness canvassing, and the graveyard. We learn the peculiarly colorful idiom of the Baltimore homicide department- the bunks, the billys, the whodunits, the dunkers, and the yos. We meet novice detective and hardcore veterans... and see the ways that they interact with each other, all the way from hazing to acceptance. Fortunately for the reader, the ample (if mordant and/or jaded) humor of these men is on display throughout the book.

But the most striking parts of this work are the descriptions of the crime scenes themselves. Simon employs a mix of clinical observation and empathy, and therefore manages to inform without dehumanizing the victims. The detectives themselves may not be able to retain the sense of the essential (in)humanity that they confront, but Simon never lets his accounts slip into gore porn. We are exposed to the almost unimaginable horrors that deperate people tend to visit on each other. Some of the dead are viewed as predictable casualties in a drug-infused environment, while others are "real victims"- which is police terminology for someone deemed innocent of crime. But each murder tells a unique story that can (to some degree) be reconstituted through investigative efforts.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Polarity of Pennsylvania.

There are two main media markets in Pennsylvania, and each of them are centered on a city of substantial size. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh straddle the state-the former rests on its far eastern border and the ladder sits on its western edge. It's natural therefore that the two constitute a polarity that goes well beyond their physical relationship. In matters of politics, culture, demographics, attitude, and feeling they are worlds apart. I grew up about an hour north of Philly, and I've lived the other half of my life in Pittsburgh. I've seen their differences firsthand and clearly, and to whatever extent a disconnect exists between the respective peoples- I've experienced it.

I've been thinking a lot about these two places because of the ongoing saga of the new Penguins arena. When it comes to the NHL, my childhood loyalties extend into the present. To whatever extent I am a sports fan, it is because I follow the Flyers. They are the only sports team I watch play. But my allegiance to the Flyers does not preclude me from wishing the Penguins well. So when I see Philly fans talking trash on the Penguins, or Pittsburgh itself- I feel inspired to come to the defense of my adopted hometown. Because of the divisional rivalry, Flyer fans tend to express great extremes of negativity in putting down Pittsburgh. This kind of thing has been going on for a long time, but it has reached a bit of a boiling point this year because (for once) the Penguins are clearly the better team. I'm not happy about that, but there it is. And at the same time, there's been all of this controversy about the future of the Penguins in Western PA.

On a number of occasions I have read comments from Flyer fans suggesting that Pittsburgh doesn't deserve a team, or a new arena. Despite the fact that state taxes are not financing the construction of the new facility (the money is partially coming from gaming revenues), people in Philadelphia seem to be resentful. Perhaps it's the prospect of having to face Sidney Crosby eight times a year. But instead of being happy that this storied rivalry is ensured of continuing, all the sour grapes that accompany a losing season are making Flyer fans reek with resentment. I have found myself in several acrimonious exchanges on a Flyer fan website, debating the relative merits of Philly and the Burgh. Today I was set off when someone characterized Pittsburgh as a "toilet". I replied by raising the ante and calling Philly a cesspool. Of course, then it was "on".

In many ways , a comparison between to the two cities is unfair and inappropriate. Philly is the fifth largest city in America. With a population of 330,000 (+/-) , Pittsburgh is like a provincial cousin. But still, having a discussion about Pittsburgh with our cross-state neighbors is a good opportunity to see just how igorant East Coasters can be. People on the other side of the Keystone state will tell you that the Three Rivers still burn, and that the sunlight never permeates the thick layers of industrial smog. This is received "wisdom" from forty years ago... but what would they know? They don't take the time to visit. I think Philadelphians get a bit lost as soon as they get out from under the shadow of NYC.

The most ironic thought is that someone from a city affectionately known as "Filth-a-delphia" has the temerity to call Pittsburgh dirty. Take the challenge- board an AMTRAK in the Burg, take it through Philly, and decide for yourself what the nastiest part of Pennsylvania is. Philadelphia is legendary for its garbage. And its blight. And its crime. Among the ten largest US cities, Philly was ranked #1 for its per capita homicide rate in 2006. That's right... the "City of Brotherly Love" is more violent than D.C., L.A., Houston, NYC or Miami. Sure... there are parts of Pittsburgh that I would rather not walk through at night. But try driving through West or North Philly during the day! It looks like a Third World war zone. As one honest local put it, "I like going into the city... I just know to avoid 70-80% of it". But it's difficult to pick and choose as you please, because Philadelphia is also very congested. It has twice the population density of Pittsburgh. And a lot of those folks are real pissed off.

Granted Philly does have its charms. If you are a colonial history buff, there is a lot to look at. The food is something I have missed since I left eastern PA... fine dining is not one of Pittsburgh's strengths. Of course, any market of Philly's size is going to offer cultural and entertainment options that a medium-sized city can't match. There is also a burgeoning arts scene, as artists from Brooklyn get priced out of their rentals. And most importantly, the southeastern corner of PA has the virtue of proximity. The shore, Manhattan, the Poconos, DC, Baltimore, and the Pine Barrens are all a short drive from center city. Plus the Flyers play there.

Sure, I could have fun over a weekend, visiting the big city. But if I want the full East Coast urban experience, I'll just skip Philly and drive the two extra hours to New York City. And if I want to bring up a middle class family within an urban environment, I'm going to avoid Philly like a disease. The few attractive neighborhoods in the city require an exorbitant amount of money to live comfortably. Pittsburgh offers much more home for a reasonable price, and you don't have to live in South Jersey to feel safe. It's clean, it has it's share of culture, and the area's public schools are much better than those in Philly. There is a laid back attitude that you could never find on the hard-scrabble, back-biting streets of Philadelphia. And of course, Sidney Crosby plays here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Some Thoughts on the Auto Club Show.

The Auto Club show last night was just as good as I anticipated. I've now seen Slim and the boys on five separate occasions (and Slim solo twice), and it amazes me that they never seem to mail in a performance. It's true that they are professionals, but one might expect that they would slow down now that they are well within the mature adult bracket. But they draw from a deep resevoir. I was almost overcome with anticipatory anxiety as it got close to showtime. I felt how I imagine a junkie feels after having indulged in a large dose of amphetimines. I'm sure I exarcerbated the feeling by drinking several shots of espresso beforehand.

I felt a tinge of guilt as the opening band played, as they are my friends and yet I wanted them to play a short set. Had anyone else been the main band, I would have been happy to relax with them for hours. As it was, I was pretty impatient. And the Auto Club's choice to include a comedian on the bill didn't help matters. The guy, who hails from Davenport, Iowa, delivers his set in a ludicrously poor English accent. He looks like an 80's hair-band holdover, and supplements his act with a synthesizer. He delivers some rapid-fire jokes and sings some grating songs, and then he mercifully cedes the stage to the headliners. Actually, he very well could have been a brilliant performer. It was difficult for me to pay attention, and distraction is not conducive to the appreciation of comedy. Anyway, as Slim put it- "He's family", and he claims an affiliation with the Church of the Subgenius, so I guess he's alrite by me. Humor is such a personally subjective concept. Most of what people find funny, I just don't get. (I even wrote a post about it.) I choked down some terrible wheat beer that constituted the "special", and talked with some friends.

So I struggled through to the "main event", and it delivered the goods. They started the set with "32 Mouths Gone Dry", which has been a longtime favorite. They tore through a large chunk of the material from their last two albums, and supplemented them with a few that I hope will be on their new release this year. The crowd was not as large as I might have hoped, but still substantial for a Monday night in the Burgh. More importantly, the crowd that was there was receptive enough to be transported by the band. It wasn't the kind of atmosphere that would make you feel self-conscious for being taken by the spirit. Ordy was back behind the kit and Munly delivered his trademark intensity. Slim engaged the crowd by hopping off the stage and handing out his blessings. This despite the fact that he drove a screw (or a screwdriver) through the palm of his hand the night before he flew to Denver to start the tour. I supressed the stigmata jokes when he told me the story. As usual, I brought some folks that had never partaken of the Auto Club before. They all thanked me afterward. By the end of the performance we were all pretty exhausted.

Actually, my reaction was a good bit beyond exhaustion. As my friends tried to coax me to leave for one last destination, I propped myself on a backless stool, and leaned against the wall. I felt waves of depression hit me, as I contemplated the time I would now have to wait before seeing the Auto Club again. Looking forward to last night had gotten me through a few rough spots during the last couple of weeks. As melodramatic as it may sound, the prospect of seeing an Auto Club show has a rejuvenating effect. And as selfish as it sounds... if I had my way, the whole band would drop whatever they have going elsewhere and join Slim in Pittsburgh permanently. But you see... there is really no margin in that, because the Lord made people here "too damn slow". I'm not sure we could muster the loyal support base that Denver (or even Providence?) has. Evidently if it's not The Clarks or some Led Zeppelin cover band, this town wants nothing to do with it. I guess that's just life in the provinces. Yet I'll continue in my efforts to get the good word out, and maybe someday I'll be able to complain about the crowds at future Auto Club shows.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Slim Cessna's Auto Club @ 31st St. Pub Tonight!

Somewhere within the vast expanse of the American West... perhaps close to the Sierra Nevadas... there is a town beyond time. Its inhabitants live with the fears and dreams of the depression-era homesteaders. They toil to carve a bulwark against the ever-encroaching wild of their surroundings. The people make contact with the spirits of the previous inhabitants of the land- an indigenous tribal group that expended its own collective sweat, a salty moisture that wet the dry gnarled roots of ancient arboreal survivors. And the hymns of the ramshackle clapboard church send reverberations beyond all hearing or understanding. The vibrations from fifty hardscrabble voices seek out the ghosts across the land. The resulting prayer is a collective plea that asks for nothing the earth can give. It's a plaint for a lost covenant, and it mollifies no one.

In this town-out-of-time, a young boy tosses feverishly on a horsehair-stuffed mattress, and though exhausted from working through the daylight of another autumn day... chases anguish through a dark space not yet sleep. His head filled with the austerity of old-time religion, he seeks a peace that is no man's to give. Like his Appalachian forebears, the boy is borne into struggle. His hands are weathered and calloused, like those of a forty-year old man. But his spirit suffers the deepest abrasions of his surroundings. He struggles with the unclean taint of the growing surges within him, and cannot escape the visions of the gaze of the girl down the road. He has been warned by the preacher to run aside of the temptations... to cast his sight instead upon the rock of the Word. But though he stretch himself out of joint to reach the sanctuary of his Lord, he feels the pull ever downward by the warm hands of the cast out angels. Yet damnation is somehow more familiar to him than eternal oblivion, and it is these thoughts of an empty non-existence that at last chill his longings. He'll rise tomorrow, and draw a cold-water canvas rag across his brow, and fortify himself for his nightly round of doubt.

Brothers and Sisters, I have spoken of this before... A Gathering of the Good People awaits your presence tonight in the Strip District. Let not another day's dawn catch you looking backwards, turn around and accept the hand that is offered you, for it is the hand of one who truly cares.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Sanctity of Human Life (?)

Lately I've been giving a lot of thought to the proposition that human life is sacred. This is an asssumption that is generally accepted without much question. Even if people don't always seem to act accordingly, most will freely express their belief in accordance with the "consensus". It's easy to make the case that life in society requires that most members hold this position. The climate of cooperation depends upon it. If people reject life's sanctity, it seems to follow that they will opt to act according to their exclusive self-interest. So perhaps it's irresponsible of me to even question the idea.

No doubt our conception of humanity is also reinforced by evolutionary biological drives that determine the long-term survival of the species. If life is not to be preserved for its own sake, then it naturally follows that the species should become extinct. The earth itself seems like it is wholly indifferent to the perpetuation of one specific form of animal. The biosystem balances itself over thousand and thousands of years, and our role in it is determined by how we interact with our environment. Sure... we believe we are indispensable, but we remain vulnerable to the ongoing determination of the workings of the entire system. The nature of life on our planet is constant flux (which in itself presents a strange paradox). Perhaps our own survival intincts will prove to be overreaching, and the necessary corrective will follow with inhuman inevitability. Certainly we face signs that our effect has been less than salutary for the rest of the planet. The significant climate changes, and the resultant threats to human existence, represent compelling feedback to mull over.

But the question is just as fascinating to me on the purely individualistic human scale. One's philosophical stance on the issue depends largely on the quality of his/her faith. If one is a "true believer", by necessity he/she sees the sacred in humanity. The idea of a hierarchy, upon which the human being presides at the top as a kind of caretaker, does not appear accidentally in our holy books. If one has faith, he/she must take for granted this responsibility. According to this perspective, every human being (unlike every animal) is imbued with a soul... and thus valued above any other life form. In this worldview everything else exists as a platform on which humanity depends as a resource. We are thus simultaneously above and beyond the world itself.

The situation becomes quite a bit more nuanced for the "non-believer", and/or the agnostic. If human beings are simply animals, then the whole framework of belief must be called into question. To what (or whom) do such individuals look to for answers? How do we frame our morality? If we assume the philosophy of utilitarianism as a basis for our rationale, then who/what constitutes the "collective"? How do we include animals in the equation?

This quandary is especially difficult for me because I am a meat-eater. If I rely on the flesh of animals for sustenance, and yet I concede that man is merely an animal, then what conclusions must I draw... and how do these affect my choice of actions? Am I "meat" as well? Considering the aforementioned harm that the surplus of humanity seems to wreak on the biosystem, how do I formulate a set of ethics by which human society can be managed? As a human, I have a complexly developed brain that allows me to posit such questions. Does this ability carry with it concomitant responsibilies?

If we are not to be valued beyond our relationship to the rest of the biosystem, then it seems to follow that we must consider alternative factors in addition to the mere preservation of human life for its own sake. The results of 150 (or so) years of modern scientific inquiry strongly suggest that the earth's limited resources are capable of supporting a finite amount of life. What do we do with the knowledge that our actions directly affect the division and management of these resources?

Following this path of rationality can result in an impression of cold abstraction. But the questions that logically follow from these premises have an impact on the most controversial, emotionally-laden issues of our time. Our decisions about abortion, euthanasia, conflicts over dwindling resources, human aid, health care, homosexuality, pollution, conservation, animal husbandry, food supplies, energy consumption, etc. are contingent on the conclusions we draw about the sanctity of human life. The sources we consult for authority on these matters have a crucial influence on our future. Sentimentality and arbitrary faith can confound our thinking and lead to disaster. While it is easy to fall into the belief that these battles are confined to a series of cultural wars, I think that the ultimate verdict will be delivered by forces larger than ourselves- but it's important to recognize that these forces are not beyond human influence. The grounds and terms upon which we discuss these matters need to be assessed with as much clarity as we can muster. Our lives (at the very least) depend upon it.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

It's Nearly Spring... Isn't It?

Strangely enough, there's been a recurrent image floating around the periphery of my consciousness today. I am somehow being propelled feet-first through a thin layer of ice and into a large body of water. I break through quite easily, with a low impact sensation in my legs, and splash into the drink. I don't fall to a great death... the resistance of the cold water catches me, stopping my plunge at a depth of only a few feet. I slowly float up again, only to meet the frozen icy crust of the surface. I can't break through, and instead stare up at the distorted sky through the imperfect lens that separates me from a needed breath of air.

These are the sensations that lift me out of the restless turnings of an afternoon nap. I am not altogether lucid, and I don't recall a time of crystalline perception within the last three weeks. It's mostly inertia carrying me forward, as I continue activities and projects that I initiated months ago. The overwhelming fact of my recent life has been exhaustion. I know that the fluctuations of the weather are a factor in all of this.

This past week has been a struggle, as a constant clear stream of watery snot has followed frequent sneezing jags. I have exhausted our household's once copious supply of tissues. I twist through periods of deep bone ache, but am afraid of the message a thermometer might bring. The many cigarettes that I am used to consuming constrict my chest, and I rely on short shallow gasps to gain my breath. I feel what I imagine twenty years of advanced aging will bring. And I feel like these discomforts can be easily read on my face. I expect people to ask me what is wrong, and I anticipate not having a concise answer.

But then frequently I feel like I am emerging from the daze. I decide that business-as-usual will restore my energy. Getting back into the flow of routine will reset my biorhythms. Perhaps the way I have felt has all been a natural response to the end of winter. If I decelerate my momentum, I can find something approaching renewal. I get up for work every day as usual, and focus on getting through the calendar.

Then the weekend arrives, and I feel a deep-seated compulsion to saturate myself with another round of stimuli. This is a regular window of open opportunity, and I am almost desperate in my attempts to extract the magical possibility of these days . Even when I know that I should remain curled up on the sofa with a book, I feel obligated to get out and engage the world. I drag myself to gallery openings, and stop in at restaurants to dine alone. I make appointments to maintain my social contacts and friendships. I try to muster an air of conviviality and submerge my malaise. And at times I can forget how tired I have been. I can sense the rewards of endurance. I know that spring is nearly here.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Daylight Saving Time

This Sunday at 2AM, we will be changing our clocks for Daylight Saving(s) Time. What this means for me is that my car clock will now be set properly. Also we will be losing a precious hour from our weekend (remember- set your clocks forward an hour). Fortunately for drunkards, the timing of the change assures that they will not lose a precious hour of imbibing.

This year marks a change in the schedule. As part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, legislators have extended DST. Traditionally the start and end dates were the first Sunday in April and the last Sunday in October. This DST will end on the first Sunday of this November. The new set-up will be retained until Congress decides otherwise (once an energy consumption study is completed). For years parents of Halloween trick-or-treaters have been petitioning the government to extend DST past October. Hopefully the extra light will result in fewer bloody and contorted little bodies lying on the street dressed as Brittany Spears and The Rock.

Energy conservation was the main rationale for the acceptance of DST. The assumption behind it was that more electricity would be used in the morning hours, and less in the afternoon- resulting in a net decrease in usage. UK-born builder William Willett invented DST in 1907 (not Benjamin Franklin, as some would have it). The government of Germany was the first to institute the changes, during World War I (1916). The UK adopted the practice during the same year. It was not until 1918 that the US Congress followed suit. They embraced DST at the same time that they formally adopted the time zones that had been in use since 1883. It was wildly unpopular- and Congress overrode President Wilson's veto to drop it. It was left up to local municiplaities to determine if they were going to use it. States like Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and cities such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia kept DST.

During WWII, Roosevelt instituted "War Time", which is basically year-long DST. Afterward, it was left once again to local governments. Finally Lyndon Johnson pushed through The Uniform Time Act of 1966. Only states could retain year-round standard time, with a vote in their legislature. Most of the United States observes daylight saving time. Indeed, Hawaii and Arizona are the only states that have refused to adopt it.

The benefits of DST have been modest. The US Department of Transportation estimated in 1975 that energy costs declined by about 1% due to the shift. They also found a corresponding .7% drop in traffic fatalities. In another 1970's study, the US Law Enforcement Assistance Administration discovered a 10-13% reduction in violent crime in Washington DC, due to DST.

Criticism about DST has traditionally come from farmers, whose workdays are dictated by the natural and seasonal cycles of the sun. They become out-of-step with the remainder of society, who during DST postpone all their evening activities by a full hour. Some critics resent governmental intrusion in any area of their lives, and DST galls them by suggesting that they should change their routine. Changing the clock also temporarily disrupts sleep patterns. Research has shown that auto fatalities increase dramatically for a day or two after both of the two Sunday switches, and researchers estimated (in a 2000 study) that the daylight savings effect results in a one-day loss of $31 billion on the major stock exchanges. DST also provides a challenge to computer-based systems that require downtime or restarting. And people who work across time zones are forced to keep up with multiple DST rules.

The solutions to the problems associated with DST include some that would make the issue more complex- such as gradually shifting the time by adding or subtracting 20 minutes for each of three successive weeks. In order to address inconsistencies in various locations, some suggest the use of Coordinated Universal Time, which is an obscure, but high-precison atomic time standard.

But until we face any other changes to DST, we might as well use it to our benefit. Firemen throughout the nation have initiated campaigns to have homeowners check their fire alarms whenever they switch their clocks. Apparently this is supposed to be a convenient time to remember to ensure our own safety. This presents little help to those of us who inevitably forget to adjust our clocks. Even the forgetful can find an opportunity to use DST in the Fall. Some permissive bars stay open an extra hour on the night of the switchback. Technically they are thwarting state law, because bars are supposed to discontinue serving alcohol at 1:59 AM on that night. In the time before then, perhaps you can find the time to enjoy the late evening light of spring and summer.