Saturday, November 29, 2008

Making the Rounds.

Today was a particularly beautiful day to walk around the neighborhood. I haven't written much about my (relatively) new habit of strolling around every day, but it's certainly been a substantial addition to my routine. I take virtually the same route daily, and it takes about 45 minutes to complete it. Basically it traces the periphery of town, encompassing a stretch along Main Street and a jaunt along the highest elevation available. I pass a mix of fairly dense housing, and go through the industrial and business districts. It actually presents a fair amount of variety. There are even a few abandoned lots to provide a sense of desolation. I like traversing these spots, and getting alone inside my head.

In some sense I feel like I'm taking the pulse of the place as I make my rounds. It's generally quiet and I notice a distinct lack of walkers. Obviously that varies according to the time of year and day that I set out. There's a nice little playground a few blocks down my street that often has activity when it's warm out. They've even built an upside-down fountain for kids to frolic under and get wet. I make a point not to look too closely at the kids as I pass by, because I don't want to come across as "the creep". Still it's nice to see children with their parents swinging or crawling on the monkey bars. I've often wondered how much time I'll spend there with Baby E. as he gets older.

Down the line I veer off through an alley, connect to the main thoroughfare, and watch the cars speed into town as they approach the first stoplight. I cross the lot of the beer distributor and turn up through one of the two main manufacturing areas. There is rarely anyone about at that end. Tucked along the nondescript buildings are two houses at the bottom of the hill, below the highway. It strikes me that it would be kind of cozy to inhabit one of those domiciles, with good friends living next door. There's very little in the way of passersby, and virtually no traffic. You'd never be bothered, and could do whatever you wanted with the privacy. Up the road is the boy scout camp that cuts into a ravine intersecting the hill. But I don't proceed that way.

I climb the steepest section of my walk and check out the cottages that push right up against the street. There is also a large warehouse where I believe they keep horses. Often I see the carriage parked along the curb. Then I come back down into the flats and continue along the row-houses. As I progress westward, the housing values drop and structures look increasingly beaten and worn. It's along this stretch that I generally see people hanging out. I may nod now and again, but I usually keep to myself. The residents are hard and often look much older than their years. Sometimes I keep my eyes down. I found twenty bucks once that way. More frequently I see empty cigarette packs and empty plastic bottles.

When I hit the drive-through bank with its accompanying lot, I double back toward my house. I saunter along the brick sidewalk and check out the shops. I look in the window of the karate school, and peep the drunks at their various barstools. Most of the businesses along Main are useless for my needs. One sells cleaning services, another displays windows and doors, and a third is a drop-off for an online auction site. As I get closer to home I pass a couple good restaurants, the pizza shop, and my mechanic. As I return to my street, I cross to the south side so as not to walk directly in front of the funeral home (superstition). When I reach my front porch, I take a seat on a plastic chair and light a smoke, just a bit weary from mild exertion.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

More Pleasant Diversions.

The other day I mentioned that my cultural diversions have trended recently toward the darker side of life. I'm reading a book about religious scenarios for the "end times". In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit to having a long fascination with apocalyptic situations. I didn't do much reading when I was in high school, but one series of books I did read was called (something along the lines of) the "Ranger Series". It was decidedly not highbrow literature. It was more the type of thing that a kid would read before moving on to Soldier of Fortune magazine. In fact, that accurately describes the path I took after reading this pulpy crap. From the little that I remember, I guess it was about a mercenary trying to make it in a post-nuclear war world.

Naturally the guy at the center of the story was tough and resourceful. Still, he also had some heart, and I guess that's what made the books "suitable" for children. I don't recall the details, yet I imagine they were pretty sordid. I was fascinated by the idea of surviving in those kinds of conditions. The typical everyday concerns melt away, and one's attitude is colored by an "every man for himself" mentality. The question is whether or not some core of morality is preserved, and how it is articulated. I guess I'm still interested in similar material, albeit with a more sophisticated shell. I loved Albert Camus' The Plague much more than I even enjoyed The Stranger. How people act in desperate times reveals their essential character (and blah,blah, blah).

Not too long ago I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and all of a sudden my obsessions returned with a vengeance. If there is any such thing as an essential work within the apocalyptic genre, it is that title. And given the fact that it earned a Pulitzer Prize, I don't have to feel particularly self-conscious about admiring it. Hell, it's "Art". Not too long from now, the film version will come out- it's directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition), and stars Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. I expect to enjoy it a lot. It was even filmed in-and-around Pittsburgh. I haven't been this excited for a film in a long time, so I'm almost certain to be disappointed.

Anyway, I couldn't just wait for that movie to get my visual fix. Last week M. and I decided to start watching the complete Jericho series. It originally ran on CBS between September of 2006 and March of this year, and evidently flew under the radar for most American television viewers. Most people that I mention it to have never even heard of the show. It did run for 29 episodes though, so someone must have been watching. Like almost everything else worth watching nowadays, it is a serial- so you have to keep up with it to understand what's going on. That puts a natural limit on viewership, as many simply aren't willing to commit to following along faithfully. In this case, that was a significant loss.

The premise of Jericho is that someone has managed to smuggle powerful barrel-sized nuclear bombs into several major US cities. It tracks the lives of the residents of the titular town, somewhere in Kansas. They appear initially as stereotypical small-townsfolk... the kind of "Real Americans" that Sarah Palin is so enamored with. But just as in reality, the characters turn out to be a lot more complex than you first expect. If it were any other way, then the show wouldn't be compelling. And after 12 episodes, we are hooked. In fact, I'm getting a bit of crap for taking a break to write this post. If I don't wrap things up, I'm liable to disappoint someone... so, more details later.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving (Even if it Kills Us).

So this is the third Thanksgiving blog post on Serendipity, and during the last two I tried to focus on positives. I'd certainly like to continue that tradition, but my cynicism is starting to preclude that type of sentiment. Still there's something to be said for making the attempt. While I see a sort of skewed wisdom in Charles Bukowski's epitaph, I don't feel that (at my age) it's worthwhile to hold him up as any king of role model. In the spirit of faith and fortune, I suppose I can find some things to be thankful for. And there's another component to this puzzle as well- despite the many problems and challenges that we (as a nation) are facing, we've got to be thankful for the run that we've had. Many of us have been extremely fortunate throughout our lives.

I don't want to be accused of being ungrateful. I am the benefactor of a system that has effectively exploited much of the world's population to live "well". I value the results of that exploitation. It's not that I don't have pangs of guilt now and again over the horrific conditions that people live under in the backwaters of the globe, but ultimately I must admit that it comes down to "better them than me". Think about all of the situations that you could have been born into. Imagine all the human beings that have existed throughout history, and consider the numbers. Work out the odds of you having been brought into existence in a country that has arguably been the sole superpower for decades.

I'm not sure that I am "proud" to be an American. On a few occasions I have had glimpses of what that feels like. However, I can say with complete assurance that I have been damned lucky to be a US citizen. I can be truly thankful for that. Past that, I am happy about the family situation that greeted my birth. I had a stable family that really didn't want for anything. It wasn't an upper-class situation, but relative to the rest of the populace, it was solid. I've had to work some crappy jobs, but those experiences were nothing compared to what the vast majority of the human race has gone through. I was able to take an undergraduate degree for granted, and I did so for several years. There was a sense of entitlement that informed my behavior.

Now I have a stable and secure job that should take me through the deflationary period that is coming. I have a good wife and a healthy son. I have a reasonable mortgage. If I step back and take stock objectively, I have to say that I've been blessed (interpret that however it fits into your personal life philosophy). I've been able to make the time to create art and write down my thoughts, and build an audience (no matter how small) for the product. There were a few years when I had money to spend on gratuitous items like DVDs, books, and camera equipment. And I have had some great friends over the years that have been willing to accompany me on my adventures. How could I not be thankful?

We are all in for a rough ride over the next decade (or more). It's time to take stock of what we've been given throughout our lives. Sure, there are some of you that are going to tell me that you earned it all... no one made your way for you. You know what I have to say to that? Fuck you. I hope you choke on your turkey. Don't be a rotten selfish prick. I'm not going to presume to tell you how to avoid it, but it's a worthwhile effort to make- just for a moment, expand your world view. I can't ask you to be charitable, as I don't relish being a complete hypocrite. But if it gets too hard to find the meaning of the day, try approaching it from a different angle altogether. Alright then... enough of my sanctimonious preaching. Enjoy the day.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Stuff of Dreams.

We are now several weeks into the President-Elect's administration. Doesn't that sound exceptionally weird? This is the first time in my experience that a newly-elected executive seems like the head of state a full two months before officially assuming office. When Clinton was in his last months, I remember people dreading his departure. No doubt that had much to do with the fact that the 2000 election was contested, and it wasn't clear who Clinton's replacement would be. A lot of folks certainly had a bad feeling about the idea of another Bush in office. Still I think few had any idea just how disastrous his first term would be. Anyway, there is a wide consensus that it's a good thing he's leaving.

I feel entitled to a couple of months of self-delusion. Can't I simply bask in the dream that we will be put back on a brighter path? Actually, the answer seems to be a resounding "No"! Despite the impression I have of Barack Obama as a resourceful and thoughtful man, if I'm really honest with myself, I have to realize that the problems are almost incomprehensibly vast. The economy is tanking, and the fed is "injecting" so much additional currency into the system that it will almost certainly overdose. This is a paradigm shift. After 9-11 we were promised that "the nation will never be the same again". I think that might have been overstated at the time, but it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Every time I consider the trillions of dollars that our government is spending to forestall the greatest crash in US history, I get that much more sick to my stomach. How could anyone have a plan to help us escape the mess? It appears that the best we can hope for is to reassure foreign investors that the entire edifice isn't built on a pile of shit and wishes. How long can we fool the rest of the world? If we are successful at this task for another few years, what are the chances that we will correct our course in the interim? Perhaps the essential human flaw comes down to a limited perspective at the core of our beings. It doesn't seem like foresight is an essentially well-developed quality of mankind. Nobody really wants to suffer for a better future.

The only thing I can do for a break is to let my cultural obsessions overcome my political ones. I need to distract myself (if only for a bit) for the sake of my own sanity and health. I promise that I won't let it go on too long, as that would mean I'm only contributing to another fundamental problem within our populace. But I feel like I deserve it. So I'm spending more time reading a book about the history of millenarian thought, with a special focus on Judeo-Christian traditions. If you're not aware of this theme, I would describe it in very simplistic terms as a belief that the world is coming to an end, and the accompanying concern with the details surrounding preparation for, and the significance of, Armageddon. If you are still unclear about the subject, have a look at the Biblical Book of Revelations as a reference point.

I'm aware of the irony of my choice. Why would I feel like turning to this type of stuff for the purpose of escapism? The answer may sound contradictory. I think that "escapism" is the appropriate descriptor for the application of imagination to "apocalypse". For as long as history has been recorded, there have been thinkers dreaming up "The End". Interestingly, they tend to twist it around into an ultimately positive scenario. Sure, you've got to go through hellish tribulations, but if you are able to come out the other side, you are in for a treat of 1000 years of peace and happiness. You see, the truth of the matter is that there is no escape. Society is (and always will be) as flawed as the individuals that make it up. Embrace that reality, and rely on dreams only whenever you find them absolutely necessary to get by.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Safe Haven.

Once again I find myself here at home taking care of Baby E. It has been nearly a full week of diarrhea for the boy, and it's putting a fair amount of stress on our little family. Yesterday he visited the hospital again, and they suggested that his situation may be bacterial as well (or instead of) viral. They set up a diagnostic test of his stool to find out, so M. spent the bulk of the day back and forth between medical facilities. When she finally got to the front of the line of the testing center, she was told they would need a bigger sample. It would take about five grams (how much is that?) to get a proper reading. Babies don't poo in big chunks. Anyway, I tried to run it by after work, but they were already closed. Sometimes nothing comes easy.

So E. is taking a nap, and I'm thinking about a story I heard on the news the other day. Nebraska has approved a change to their "Safe Haven Law". I didn't know it, but it turns out that every state in our union has a similar provision on their books. Apparently if you have a kid, yet for one reason or another you can't (or won't) take care of him/her, you can drop your child off at a hospital without prosecution. I guess too many babies were ending up in dumpsters. What made the land of the Cornhusker different was the age limitation, or lack of it. Many states restrict a "parent" from passing off his/her responsibility once the tyke reaches a certain cutoff point. In 13 states, that threshold is thirty days.

For some reason there were no parameters in the Nebraska law. Last Friday the last unwanted offspring (14-years old) was left at a hospital, making him the 36th minor to be abandoned since the problematic law went into effect in July. Reportedly many of these individuals were preteens, and one was actually 17-years old. A majority was said to have serious psychiatric or behavioral problems. Occasionally, people were driving in from out-of-state to ditch their responsibilities. I find that particularly sad. Are people really so desperate in our modern age to free themselves of their burdens? Is our social support system so inadequate that this is the last resort?

Obviously this isn't an option anymore. It's likely that Nebraska will end up imposing a limit of thirty days after birth for its "Safe Haven Law". But it's also clear that the problem is not going away. Todd Landry (Nebraskan state bureaucrat) expressed the official position: "The role of the state’s child-welfare system is to protect children who are fundamentally unsafe." He made it quite clear where the authorities stand on the issue- for "safe" children,"it is not the role of government to intervene". Of course that statement evokes certain questions about how we organize our society. If people are reaching out for help by simply ditching their kids under circumstances where they won't be prosecuted, is the government acting in an invasive manner by lending a hand?

From my point of view, this unfortunate phenomenon should be a wake-up call. A large segment of the populace is adamant that human life begins at conception. "Pro-life" warriors insist that every "act of creation" must be allowed its opportunity to be born. Yet evidently society's responsibility ends once the new being exits the birth canal (or after some arbitrary period like 30 days). Under this perspective, mothers who get pregnant are left entirely to their own devices in providing for the children they bear... regardless of whether or not they truly wanted them in the first place. Perhaps the anti-abortion crowd needs to realize that not every soul is equipped for parenthood. If they are unable to face this simple reality, they should be prepared to step in and provide support for every child that is abandoned, no matter at what age.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama Tips His Hand With Tim Geithner.

President-Elect Barack Obama is moving forward at an extremely accelerated rate to form his cabinet. Obviously, with the number and severity of major challenges the nation faces, this atypical haste makes some sense. First and foremost on virtually everybody's mind is the financial crisis. The situation took decades to erode to its current point, but people are hoping for a quick fix. It's clear to anyone with even a cursory understanding (like me) that solutions will neither come easy nor fast. Our economy is in shambles, and our public and private debt is out of control. If done correctly, it could still take a generation to work out of the mess that we are in. There likely won't be any miracles.

I've seen and heard a lot of folks discussing what they perceive as unreasonable expectations among Obama supporters. This perception has been no doubt fueled by the Republican-formulated meme that people view our next president as a "Messiah". They believe that he has promised everything to everybody, and that the public will hold him to ridiculously high standards. The reality is that Obama is no extremist, despite what we heard during the election out of the McCain camp. If anything he is a centrist. Leaving aside the center-right or center-left characterizations, we can expect the former Senator from Illinois to take a pragmatic approach to governance. "Better than Bush" is as far as I'm willing to go in my speculations.

If you still fear (or hope) that our new federal executive is a "socialist", you should take a good, hard look at the team he's built so far. Last Friday, it was announced that Timothy Geithner (president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York since 2004) will be the next Treasury Secretary. The markets responded by jumping ahead 500 points. Geithner is a Brooklyn native, and has attended Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins University. He is a world-traveler, having lived in India, China, Thailand, and Indonesia. It's notable that Geithner is not a "professional economist". His first job in government was with the US Treasury Department in 1988. He served as Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs in the Clinton years, and then moved on to the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Monetary Fund.

Geithner is particularly known for dealing with crisis. This past March he engineered the rescue and sale of Bear Stearns, but also helped make the decision to let Lehman Brothers fail. He is also credited with managing serious troubles in Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand. During the current debacle in the US, he's had a close working relationship with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. He's an establishment guy, with ties to Clinton advisers like Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin. His philosophy is no doubt in line with the architects of the $750+ bailout that was recently approved by Congress. He's succinctly encapsulated his working philosophy by saying, “Most consequential choices involve shades of gray, and some fog is often useful in getting things done.” (The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 20, 2007).

On a personal level, it is said that Geithner is avowedly non-partisan, and a registered independent. He's known for his willingness to challenge authority, self-deprecating humor, and vast resources of energy. But he's also reportedly even-keeled and conciliatory. He's likely to maintain his close associations with Bernanke and Summers (who was pegged by Obama to be Chairman of the National Economic Council / Assistant to the President for Economic Policy*). It's evident that Geithner is an advocate of applying a robust activism in order to "save" the markets. Whether that means "business as usual" is yet to be seen, but the scuttlebutt is that Geithner wants even more power to search for solutions in order to avoid another Great Depression.

* Some suspect that Summers was offered this position instead of Treasury Secretary in order to avoid tricky confirmation hearings. Summers is known as an advocate of unfettered "free markets" and deregulation. This article, however, suggests that Geithner has been arguing for more consolidated supervision over the banking and financial industries.

There is also speculation that Lawrence Summers will be groomed to become the next Fed Chairman when Ben Bernanke's term expires in 2010.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Seth Gordon, "The King of Kong" (2007). Juan Antonio Bayona, "El Orfanato" (2007).

Every once in awhile it's good to change things up a bit. So last Friday night when a few friends and I decided to stay in and watch movies, I was open to new suggestions. Since I was visiting someone else's house, I quickly assented to seeing two films I had no part in picking out. Our host had gotten them through Netflix, and he wanted to screen them so that he could exchange them for new ones. I had selected the pool to choose from the two previous times that we got together, and I supposed it was only fair to let someone else set the tone for the evening. It's quite honestly a bit of a novelty for me to have my viewing experience dictated externally, but the situation wasn't as bad as it might have been.

The two flicks on our schedule were both titles I had considered buying pre-viewed. I figured that it was a boon to have the opportunity to save the money and discover their value without having to track them down myself. Whereas I might have put up a fight if the offerings were ones I had no interest in, it was easy for me to sit back and relax with what was on hand. We agreed to start with The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007). Directed by relative newcomer Seth Gordon, the documentary traces the world of competitive classic video gamers. Like virtually any other marginal amusement activity in America, there is an entire subculture built up around 1980's-era stand-up games like Donkey Kong, Centipede and Q-bert.

You can probably imagine what these folks are like- they are nerdy, pasty and socially awkward. Yet they take their hobby very, very seriously. One player (a suburban everyman named Steve Wiebe) is so caught up in chasing the record score on DK that he regularly sheds tears when he is bested. The man usually delivering the smack-downs is "celebrity" player Billy Mitchell. In the world of the video arcade, this guy is the smoothest of the geeks. Gordon sets up an epic battle, pitching Mitchell as the dark knight going up against the clean-cut sincerity of Wiebe. There are plenty of laughs to be had along the way, but we couldn't help thinking the entire milieu was a bit pathetic. By the end we were all hoping for the very real tragedy of suicide.

After the comic pathos of The King of Kong, we were ready for some unadulterated bleakness. Our follow-up was El Orfanato (2007, US title- The Orphanage). Produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Cronos, Hellboy) and directed by first-timer Juan Antonio Bayona, it tells the story of a couple that has decided to open up a school for "special children" along an isolated stretch of the Spanish coastline. It just so happens that Laura (Belén Rueda) was once housed at this location as an orphaned child herself. Perhaps that is why she adopted Simón (Roger Príncep), a young boy with HIV. Laura and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have not told their child that he is afflicted with the deadly disease, nor that he is not their natural child.

Despite the family secrets, young Simón knows the deal. He's being advised by what his parents believe are his "imaginary friends". While Laura at first believes that these consorts are simply the product of a kid's fanciful imagination, she soon suspects that her new living environs harbor some eerie forces. When Simón disappears without a trace, his mother dedicates herself to unlocking the mysteries of the house and its storied history. There are certainly some deftly horrific shots and sequences in El Orfanato. A particular highlight is a creepy costume party that Laura hosts for the arrival of her new wards. However, the narrative is encumbered by a score weighed down by cliché and an ending that is just too sentimentalized for its own good. It's an interesting diversion, but not necessary for your collection.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

What the Hell Was That?

We had a looming crisis this past week in our household. To be honest with you, I wasn't even going to post about it because of the stigma involved. But because we got lucky, I feel free to write about it now. A few nights ago, M. woke me up at about 3:00AM. I was naturally dazed, and couldn't figure out why I should have been roused from a deep sleep at that ungodly hour on a school night (which illuminates my pervasive lack of grace, as M. has been interrupted multiple times nightly for the past year by Baby E.). It turned out that M. had been feeding the kid, and she looked up to spot what she believed to be a roach on the wall. She made an effort to crush it, but she believed that it got away. She wanted me to search the wicker laundry basket that was below the scene of the attempted murder.

I couldn't find the carcass... not that I especially wanted to. I've had my experiences with these nasty bugs. My dorm complex in college was rife with them. One day I heard a high-pitched screaming coming from the bathroom area, and I rushed over to see one of the freshman football players, clad only in a towel and just out of the shower. He was pointing in horror to what was then one of the biggest insects I had ever seen in my life. With its antennae, it was about six inches long and several inches wide. The backup quarterback was there too, and he was hocking big thick loogies, and launching them on to the back of the monster. It was truly a surreal site. To see these big dudes quivering like schoolgirls was entertaining, but this thing really was horrific.

Years later I went to Tampa, FL and came across "palmetto bugs" that hopped around an outdoor shower. So yeah... I don't like cockroaches. In my heart of hearts all I could hope for was that this pest in the baby's room was an isolated incident. M. was more proactive however, and made an appointment with an exterminator for the next day. I was leery, as I always suspect companies that agree to come to your house for free no-obligation inspections. I speculated that some guy would show up and drag roach eggs into our place on the bottom of his shoes. If we weren't already infested, we would be soon. Still M. couldn't be budged. She was not willing to risk a full-scale invasion.

When the man with the poison juice showed up, he guessed that what M. had seen was a stowaway from one of the large cardboard boxes that E.'s diapers regularly arrive in. He was actually reticent to spray with a nursing mother and child under the age of one. He left with a promise to come back and look at the bug, should we ever find its maimed body. And today M. found the thing. She identified it as the original perp through the extensive damage she had exacted on it. Wonder of wonders, the exterminator was true to his word and agreed to come back to have a look-see at the remains. We waited for him to show up and give us a verdict on the shell of a creature that was now preserved in a plastic sandwich bag.

Our joy was not to be contained when he gave us his conclusion- it wasn't a cockroach after all, but rather a brown marmorated "stink bug". Apparently these creatures often seek shelter indoors once temperatures begin to fall. Fortunately they do not reproduce as quickly as the species they resemble. We were told that we didn't have a problem. They don't come in bunches. Ours was a lone visitor. Before the man left, I asked him what health hazards cockroaches present. He said that an allergen associated with them can cause asthma, emphysema other lung ailments (especially in children) and that the federal government is actually paying exterminators to go into low-income developments and do preventative spraying. We dodged a bullet.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Pedialyte and Baby Einstein.

Today I had the task of watching Baby E. here at home. He's got some type of stomach virus, and it's making his stool look like gruel. He also had a couple of puking bouts over the last couple of days. Fortunately he doesn't have any kind of fever to speak of, and that makes us feel better about his overall well being. Whatever he has doesn't seem to be making him that miserable. He's got plenty of smiles for us, and he's playing the same way he usually does. But our daycare doesn't want a kid there who has puked within the last 24 hours, or has any version of nasty diarrhea. M. called off yesterday to watch him, and she's going through her allotted sick days quicker than normal. She used her entire store after E. was born.

I've got plenty of days saved up, so it actually makes a lot of sense for me to take the duty. The problem is that I don't know what the hell I'm doing most of the time. Sure it sounds easy in theory... babies eat, poop, and sleep. However they have a particular manner of doing each of these things, and you only really learn about them through repeat experience. E. is also too young (or too stubborn) to have much of a fixed schedule. So far today I've had to simply guess when it's time to eat, nap, or get his diaper changed (that last activity is made a bit clearer from the stench emanating from E.'s nether regions). I have to rely on my resources of observation and persuasion to get by.

What complicates the issue is that E. is out of his routine, and thrown off by whatever discomfort his ailment is giving him. I knew I was in for it late last night when M. decided to take him to Children's Hospital. He had only wet his diaper once, and that's an indicator of dehydration. You certainly couldn't tell that anything was wrong with him from his behavior. He seemed pretty happy. But the doctor that M. talked to said that you can't risk it. She schlepped him out way past his bedtime for check-up, and wouldn't you know it... the professionals decided not to give him fluids via I.V. They recommended that we give him Pedialyte (for those of you who are unfamiliar, it's like Gatorade for tykes).

Anyway, when I woke up with the kid this morning, I was given strict instructions to try hard to get him to drink this nostrum. Apparently though, little E. has strict temperature requirements for his drinks. He doesn't like them cold. If you open a single-serving bottle of Pedialyte, you are supposed to refrigerate the remains. If he won't drink it when you break the seal, it's got to be preserved, and then heated to room temperature the next time you give it to him. Luckily M. was able to rush home during lunch hour to problem solve. She was exhausted of breast milk, so she had to be creative. She mixed some Pedialyte with rice cereal and fed him with a spoon. I would have NEVER thought to do that. But that's why she's the Mommy.

I'm grateful that I have at least developed the skills to keep him distracted. More accurately, I'm glad that there are people whose jobs revolve around making stuff like plastic toys and Baby Einstein DVDs. What did hapless fathers do before these technologies were invented? I guess they simply went to work and let the stay-at-home mothers take care of it. That's not an option for many parents nowadays. It's a serious issue. You'd think that some enterprising entrepreneur would start sickroom day cares for kids that can't attend their regular facilities. I guess there are too many concerns with public health for that to work. I envy folks who have extended families that can take up the slack. Still I guess I should just be thankful that I have a job that allows me to take off for these situation.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pirates of the Indian Ocean.

When you think of pirates, what are the images that come to mind? A swash-buckling Errol Flynn? An effete Johnny Depp with an eye patch? Do you imagine the colorful characters represented by your child's toys? Is that a parrot on his shoulder? Does that guy have a peg leg? The degree to which pirates have been romanticized over time is amazing. The bright colors, long hair, and natty clothing of the stereotype are pervasive and misleading. What do modern-day pirates actually look like? They are likely to be skinny Africans or Asians. Coming as most do from Third World nations wracked by poverty, they usually don't spend a lot of time trying to impress with sartorial splendour.

The very first pirates that the United States had to deal with were from the Barbary Coast ports of Northern Africa. These Ottoman Corsairs were Muslims from Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers and Morocco that operated in the Mediterranean from the Crusades until the 19th century. What particularly annoyed the Western powers was the fact that these cutthroats demanded tribute from ships desiring to move through the waters where they were based. If money was not forthcoming, than the pirates would attack and capture both ship and crew. They also made raids on coastal towns and grabbed unsuspecting Europeans villagers, selling them into slavery. This took a serious toll on the psyches and pocketbooks of major world powers.

It's incredible to think that tributes to Barbary Coast pirates accounted for 20% of US government revenues in 1800. Granted, modern-day thieves probably siphon off that much from the Fed nowadays, but at least most of those responsible are actually US citizens. Jefferson and Stephen Decatur finally put an end to the problems by sacking Tripoli, and for awhile the seas were safe for American shipping. It looked as if piracy was a thing of the past. But it never did go away entirely. Apparently terror floats on water as well as it creeps on land. Still there's always more to the story that can't be encapsulated by a bumper sticker mentality. The latest activity is happening off the coast of Somalia.

When Somalia was beset with internal breakdown fifteen years ago, regular patrols along their coast came to an end. That's when fishermen from other nations started fishing the rich Somali waters with impunity. Finally the Somalis struck back with vigilantism. They began to corner these illegal fishermen and demand taxes. Naturally this practice escalated, and soon the vigilantes transformed into pirates that targeted any ship within reach. It became a lucrative way to address the crippling poverty in that part of Africa. At the end of this past September, some independent Somalis hijacked a Ukrainian freighter loaded with tanks, guns, and ammunition headed for Kenya. They were quickly surrounded by American and Russian warships, and demanded $20 million to release the ship, crew, and cargo.

As of November 20, 2008 pirates have attacked 95 ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, hijacked 39, and were still in possession of 17 vessels. They will likely have received tens of millions of dollars before the year is over. Most recently, the Somali pirates have seized a Saudi oil tanker called the Sirius Star, which was carrying two million barrels of crude. They are asking for $25 million within ten days, and threatening "something disastrous" if they don't get it. The world's major military powers are taking notice of the situation and considering what to do about it. The United Nations is thinking about putting together a fleet to stem the problem. But until there is some stability in Somalia itself, I don't see how they are going to stop this piracy.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Another Strike Against Potential Filibusters.

One more battle in the Congressional War on Obstructionism has been concluded. Mark Begich has officially defeated Alaskan senator Ted Stevens. The count of absentee and early ballots gave the Mayor of Anchorage a 1.2% lead over the incumbent. Stevens was the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, but saw his reputation shattered after being convicted on seven counts of corruption charges. Apparently he accepted money ($250K) in the form of personal gifts from VECO, an oil-services company. Even had he won the election, it's doubtful that he would have been allowed to occupy his seat. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was planning to call upon Stevens to resign. The GOP mercifully postponed an expulsion vote until after the results of the count.

With Begich joining the majority, the Democrats now number 58 within their caucus. His victory makes him the first Alaskan Democratic Congressman since Mike Gravel left the Senate in 1981. Interestingly, the last member of the House of Representatives to represent the party was Nick Begich (Mark's father) , who disappeared in a flight over Alaska in 1972. Begich will be the only legislator in the Upper House who does not have a college degree. He's got a history of barely squeezing into his elected positions. After running unsuccessfully to be the Anchorage Mayor twice, he found his third try charmed when he won by just eleven votes. He also benefited from a law passed during that cycle that allowed a candidate to win the mayoralty without a majority of the vote.

In other recent news, "Independent" legislator Joe Lieberman will remain with his former party, as he is being allowed to keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. A secret vote on his future weighed heavily in his favor (42-12). He reportedly appreciates the gesture as one of "reconciliation" rather than "retribution". Closer to the truth is the longshot chance that the Democrats may attain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate if everything falls their way. The two remaining contests involve a hand recount of 2.9 million votes in Minnesota, where Norm Coleman (R) leads Al Franken (D) by a mere 215 votes, and a runoff in Georgia pitting incumbent Saxby Chambliss (R) against Jim Martin (D).

My prediction prior to the election was that the Dems would end up with 57-58 seats in the Senate, and they have now reached that mark. What's particularly amusing is that several "conservatives" on talk radio were crowing about the Democratic "failure" to gain their objectives in Congress, despite the fact that they expanded their numbers in both houses. Despite the difficult odds, they now have a slim possibility of being able to defeat any GOP filibusters. I know that scares the hell out of the Republicans, but it would certainly prime the pumps of the Obama administration. It would mean, that instead of merely focusing on undoing the disastrous policies of the Bush Administration, the Dems could actually pursue a progressive agenda.

In order to force cloture (end discussion on a proposed bill for a vote), there needs to be 60 senators who want to move legislation forward. Perhaps the Democrats will be able to isolate a few Republican dissidents, and make deals that defeat filibusters. That techique gets its title from the Spanish word for "pirate" or "freebooter". It involves participating in an endless stream of debate in order to stall action on a bill. The last session of Congress saw the GOP minority employ this tactic more than any group of senators in US history. There is no doubt that it will continue to do anything it can to thwart the Democratic agenda. Besides going "nuclear" (changing the rules on the Senate floor), there are not going to be a lot of options to curb procedurally-enforced inaction.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Big Three: Belly-up or Bailout?

Now the big three American automakers have made their great journey to the "Land of Milk and Honey" that we call D.C., and they have their hands extended for a bailout. And really, who can blame them? They have seen the federal government give out $750 billion to the financial world, and they want their piece while the getting's good. Unlike Wall Street, Detroit can actually lay claim to making a product that many citizens are reliant on. While it's true that the populace can look elsewhere for automobiles (and many in fact do), it also must be noted that between those who actually work directly for the "Big Three", and all the ancillary companies that support the industry, there are approximately 2.5 million jobs at stake.

I find it completely understandable that folks are resisting forking over more funds for corporations that have a long tradition of mismanagement. I've read estimates that General Motors is losing $1 billion a month. The outstanding question is, "Will any low-interest government loan amount to throwing good money after bad?" If the policies and strategies of car manufacturers in the United States don't change, then there is no reason to believe that an injection of $25 billion into the industry will do anything other than delay its inevitable failure. Still we are told that GM is on the cusp of finally unveiling the Chevy Volt. Maybe this is the chunk of change that will finally put the product over the top?

It's pretty obvious that the reliance on making high-profit SUVs and other large model cars has put these automakers in dire straits. It was fine when gas was consistently cheap... the marketing campaigns were effective enough to convince many suburb/exurbanites that they needed these things for their family trips back-and-forth to Walmart. Once a substantial number were on the road, ownership of such inefficient machines was seen as a status symbol. Then it was easy to justify buying one because you needed to keep up just to be safe among the other behemoths of the road. It was a self-perpetuating cycle that was only stymied by the steep increases in fuel prices. Of course after that it was difficult to give them away.

Still, those who favor such profligate consumer lifestyle choices will say that the state of the "Big Three" has nothing to do with SUVs, but rather the salaries and benefits of unionized auto employees. It's easy to surf the net and find people bitching about "luxury" dental plans and "undeserved" wage increases. Their position is that if we just adjust worker compensation to fall in line with those in third world nations, then we'll be truly competitive. The answer, according to these "free market" capitalists, is "let them go into bankruptcy" so that they don't have to honor their labor contracts. They insist that the preservation of decent jobs is not the business of our national government.

However, I'm convinced that the "Big Three" is going to get their assistance no matter what. The only question is where the money is going to come from. Henry Paulson doesn't want to break it off from the ridiculously large sum he has been given to play with, without oversight. That's for the investment banks. He suggests that Congress take the sum from the legislative allocation that has been made to encourage the production of fuel-efficient cars. But Democrats are not going for it. Apparently they are sick of seeing these large corporations place all their concerns on short-term profits at the expense of technological investments that could serve them well in the future. I can't say I blame them. It sickens me too.

NOTE: One suggestion I've come across that seems just (but not likely) is to pressure oil companies (that have made record profits over the last several years) to extend low interest loans to the automakers. Of course if that did happen, there would need to be close governmental supervision to avoid any resulting influence that Exxon/Mobil would have on the "Big Three". That's already a bit of an unholy alliance.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead. Now What?

There have been a lot of theories tossed around during the last several months to explain the economic crisis that has finally hit the United States. Perhaps it's because the effects of the long-brewing situation intensified during a presidential election, but it's notable just how political so many of the explanations have been. So many citizens are curious as to how the arcane manipulations of the system are going to hit them. For too long, otherwise intelligent and informed folks have taken it for granted that the markets work themselves out over time. There was no great perceived need for the populace to follow along too closely. I am certainly guilty of giving the workings of the economy little consideration.

It's become imperative that I drop my personal distaste for the details of the economy. Everyone seems to agree that we are in for a long period of tumult, and many are sure that we are entering a period of depression. How is that going to affect me and my family? How can I ensure the value of the money I have saved over a period of years? What is my life going to look like if shit really hits the fan? No doubt there are a lot of people asking themselves the same exact questions nowadays. But where can someone with little background in economics turn for substantial answers to these questions? It stands to reason that anything that has been said in the midst of a presidential election should be viewed with skepticism.

I do have recourse to a couple of friends that have been paying attention to the markets for a long time. These individuals have developed perspectives that go beyond the simple conclusion that we are "screwed". They offer insights into what may happen over the next several years. Still, it's obvious that no one can say for sure. People can't even agree on the reasons why we are in this terrible position in the first place. If you've been paying attention, you have no doubt heard from some "free market" capitalists that it's actually the fault of what little regulation has existed in the housing markets over the last decade. These guys are still pimping 80's-era mythology. The last refuge of the ideologue is denial.

Yet there are still "conservatives" that will blame the entire Wall Street debacle on Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and the Community Reinvestment Act. The blame (under this theory) rests solely at the feet of low income (minority) borrowers that got in over their heads with mortgages that they could never afford. If you research the numbers, you discover quite quickly that this is a smokescreen. The percentage of subprime mortgages that were mandated by the CRA is minimal. There were people from all over the class spectrum taking out loans that exceeded the amounts that conventional wisdom dictated as prudent. Who was responsible for perpetuating the myth that housing values would increase by exorbitant amounts forever?

Naturally there were others (besides Clinton) identified as culprits. Alan Greenspan refused to raise interest rates despite the cautionary warnings that observers were delivering. Greenspan, a disciple of objectivist Ayn Rand and true believer in the "free market", failed to recognize the housing bubble until it was much too late to stave off the crisis of its resounding burst. As late as 2004 he was still encouraging prospective buyers to take out adjustable-rate mortgages. Greenspan's love affair with derivatives extended to mortgage-backed securities as well. He absolutely refused to entertain any regulations concerning these unproved and shaky financial instruments. Such tools have been identified as a further compounding cause of today's perilous economy.

Despite the fact that Greenspan was still trying to defend his outmoded libertarian views as late as this past April, he finally admitted his culpability on October 23, 2008, in testimony to Congress. In his dotage, Greenspan finally had to admit the fallibility of his lifelong commitment to "free market" ideology- "Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder's equity -- myself especially -- are in a state of shocked disbelief." Always admired for his qualities of understatement, when asked whether that meant his views had been wrong Greenspan responded, "Absolutely, precisely”. Little good that does us now. We'll pay the price of for his faith. But now that the "free market" witch is finally dead, what happens now?

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Alan Ball, "Six Feet Under- Season 1"

There are certain consumer choices and behaviors that seem to mark individuals as members of the American mainstream. An almost unwholesome obsession with sports (mostly in a strictly voyeuristic sense) is one of them. Another is an addiction to cable television. Every once in awhile someone who I don't know very well will assume that I share these proclivities, and launch into a subject using names and terms that are unfamiliar to me. When this happens I have a few options. I can quickly change the subject to something I do know about. I can remain relatively silent and nod my head as if I understand completely. Or I can explain that I don't participate in these "activities" in any meaningful way.

Usually, if I respect the person I'm talking with, I'll opt for that last choice. I'm always prepared for a quick end to such a conversation. And it's often a relief to me when that expectation is realized. I find most of the programs (and sporting events) that the average media consumer prefers boring. I can't exactly trace the development of my attitude. When I was a kid, I watched all the popular shows. But at some undefined point in my early 20's, most of the stuff on television ceased to compel me to continue watching. It just didn't seem relevant to the things I was experiencing in my life. A lot of material that I would have once laughed at or been excited by seemed contrived. I suppose I lost some friends when this happened.

After awhile I discovered ways to find things that did resonate with my life. The internet came around at the ideal time, and access expanded to a point that I could identify films, books, and music that challenged and intrigued me. For years I built collections of items that I felt would be essential. Over time I had to cast my sights further afield to ferret out the gems. Through a strange and circuitous inverted path, I have recently found myself buying DVDs of television programs that I missed along the way. The latest series I've been exploring is the HBO production Six Feet Under. It was a quirky show broadcast between 2001 and 2005. Alan Ball, the writer of American Beauty, created the concept.

Six Feet Under garnered a lot of critical acclaim and many awards. Some have made the claim that it was one of the best dramas ever made for television. While I tend to avoid that type of superlative- after watching the first season I can recommend it as a quality show. It concerns a family that owns and operates a funeral parlor. Ruth Fisher (Frances Conroy) is a middle-aged widow with three (mostly) adult children who all have a tendency to keep their inner lives repressed. The oldest (Nate, played by Peter Krause) has been brought back to his childhood home by the death of his father, after casting about in a Northwestern slacker existence for a decade-and-a-half. His reluctant reintegration is facilitated by a developing relationship with Brenda (played by Rachel Griffiths), a brilliant but troubled young woman raised under the close scrutiny of two eminent psychologists.

Middle child David (Michael C. Hall) is the presumptive head of the family business. He's inherited his tendency to be a control freak from his mother, and is struggling to come to terms with his repressed homosexuality. And then there is Claire (Lauren Ambrose), the baby of the family, who has her own adolescent difficulties dealing with being the high school "freak". All of the principles are competent (if not outstanding) actors, and their performances benefit from the quirky plot threads and dialog written into the show. Obviously death plays a large role as an organizing theme. There is ample dark humor included to temper the constant background of tragedy that permeates the narrative arc.

Perhaps the most admirable aspect of Six Feet Under is its unflinching willingness to confront controversial subject matter in an apparently honest way. There are certainly elements of magical realism threading through the episodes, but they never distract from the impression that the viewer is watching an essentially truthful depiction of an unusual American tableau. Ultimately that's what attracts me to the show- I find it insightful enough to keep watching, even when it hits the occasional awkward note. I don't know whether or not I'll make it through the full run, but what I've seen so far has justified its existence.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Be Good For Goodness' Sake.

You know we've officially entered the Holiday Season when "conservative" talk radio starts its annual ranting about the supposed "War on Christmas". The tip-off for me came yesterday when local host Fred Honsberger started bitching about a new ad that's been appearing on public buses. Apparently it reads "Why believe in God? Be good for goodness' sake". It's a fairly innocuous message as far as I'm concerned, but it's reportedly quite offensive to a segment of fragile Christians. Honsberger is rolling out the lamentations about what he perceives as "attacks" on Christianity. He wants to know why folks would want to pick on these God-faring citizens. He's challenged the audience to come up with examples where Christians have harassed non-believers*.

Only a complete wingnut would try to make the case that Christians are persecuted in this country. Despite the protections of the 1st Amendment, people of "faith" are continually trying to get government to adopt their beliefs and language. It's obvious to me that religion has a much better chance of encroaching upon our public life than it has of being repressed by our leaders (or marketers). I'm fine with giving the flock a wide berth. They should be able to do anything they want (within the bounds of the law) in their places of worship. I don't even mind the occasional reference to "God" in political speeches. But I don't want anybody forcing their doctrine on me. I was raised as a Christian, and I've had plenty of time to either embrace or reject it on my own.

I don't understand how a secular humanist reminder to value good for it's own sake is particularly threatening to anyone in society. Not everyone is going to accept your own personal savior. And if you study the holy books, you find out pretty quick that the God they speak of wanted humans to make their own choices. It's not that impressive to commit to fate. If your salvation or damnation was decided for you at birth, then it really wouldn't matter how you behaved in life. I would think that this is an essential argument used quite often in the push for conversion. I know for a fact that it's an important underlying premise for those practicing within evangelical sects.

So what happens to "the lost"? There will always be a certain proportion of people that refuse to be "saved". What is to be done with those that recognize no divine parameters? If they aren't concerned with avoiding sin, or with the consequence of eternal suffering as a punishment for ignoring "The Word", what could we possibly do to influence their moral decisions? Surely we need to socialize them somehow. On what foundation can we build our ethical edifice? Fortunately we have the preserved writings of plenty of artists, writers, and philosophers that have grappled with these issues without relying on God for their authority. There is a wide range of approaches that can lead to the desired outcomes. There is no single path, as far as I'm concerned.

Honsberger claims that the aforementioned advertisement (which is illustrated with a Santa Clause character) somehow denigrates his beliefs. We can only assume from his reaction that he is convinced that his is the only way. He considers December 25th the birth date of the the only son of God, and therefore one of the two most sacred days of the year. I can respect that, but I disagree that the appropriation of the Santa Claus iconography for this ad cheapens anyone's faith. There is a long tradition of consumer manipulation based around this fat jolly guy dressed in red. What he has to do with the historical figure that died on a cross completely eludes my grasp.

When Walmart offers you a Merry Christmas next month, they won't be concerned with sharing the love of Christ with you. They are more interested in sustaining a marketing mythology that they have determined is helpful in reaching their sales objectives. Fred Honsberger would be better served confronting that whole mess, rather than a small secular group that is trying to promote cooperation and civility.

* I'll leave this task to the readers of Serendipity. I feel no need to insult your intelligence or historical awareness.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

The Herd Meets in Miami.

The GOP has officially started its deconstruction of the sea change that has seen them ousted from power. After the presidential election, it was clear that Republicans were going to have to take stock of their collective position, and try to figure out how to move themselves forward. On Wednesday and Thursday, the Republican Governor's Association met in Miami to sift through the debris. Leaders like Florida Chief Executive Charlie Crist (who hosted the annual gathering) took the opportunity to call for an expansion of the GOP base. The folks in attendance would have been well served to attend closely to Crist's words. Despite the fact that his state went for Obama, the local party did well in stemming the bleeding, ceding only one seat to the Dems in the legislature.

Observations seemed to have flown fast and furious as the politicians disagreed about ways to move forward, and argued about who or what to blame for their recent losses in national government. Curiously, traditional wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage were scarcely mentioned. In a time when the nation faces some of its most formidable challenges in more than half a century, the voting populace is not looking to vilify its less popular members. The "Us vs. Them" mentality that has proved so easy to perpetuate and manipulate over the last eight years is starting to lose its sheen. People are becoming more interested in substantive issues that affect the entire country. The Bush legacy is being increasingly rejected.

So now the GOP is considering turning its attention to energy, education, and the environment. These are areas that their opposition has been working on for decades. As these things become increasingly important to the middle and working classes, Republican leaders are facing being left out in the cold permanently. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty cast light specifically on the recent party approach to energy independence. Pawlenty said, " 'Drill, baby, drill,' by itself, is not an energy policy. We need that, but we need a lot more than that.'' Meanwhile Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal underscored the problem by pointing out, " 'Our bumper-sticker message can't be, 'Vote Republican because the other side is worse' ".

It's fairly easy to interpret some of these comments as criticisms of how the McCain/Palin ticket ran their campaign. There was some speculation at the meeting that John McCain was the worst possible nominee for the highest office in the recently concluded election cycle. Certain individuals suggested that the Arizona senator had "thumbed his nose" at the base (despite his pick for a running mate). Others disagreed, expressing their belief that McCain had the best chance of all the GOP candidates to win a close race against Barack Obama. They also pointed out that a climate that featured an unpopular outgoing president, a controversial war in Iraq, and a crisis in the economy, did not favor a Republican victory.

Not surprisingly participants shied away from attacking Alaskan governor Sarah Palin. After all, she is still the freshest and most noteworthy member of the club. While she represents one side of the growing ideological divide within the GOP, she also happened to be present at the meeting. On Thursday she delivered an address that could have easily been delivered on the stump only a month ago. Ultimately Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour tried to dampen any fomenting dissension by warning, "Anybody here tonight who's talking about the 2012 presidential election needs to get their eye on the ball. We don't need any talk of 2012." Of course one might imagine that his admonition fell on deaf ears.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pittsburgh Art Happenings: 11/14-15/08.

It's been several weeks since I gave a shout-out to the local scene, so I feel an entry is overdue. It doesn't hurt that there are a number of compelling events happening around town over the next couple of days. If you are anything like me, you could probably use a break from the national scene. Out-of-town readers... don't despair, as the blog's focus will remain broader than this post may suggest.


Five new exhibitions are opening at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. The one I'm most excited by is Altered States, because it features work by Romanian transplant and friend, Tibi Chelcea. Unfortunately he won't be present at the reception. Chelcea is currently in South America, no doubt having the time of his life. Before he left we exchanged several pieces of art, as we are fans of each other's images. His are mostly byzantine woodcuts evocative of the Kafkaesque existence so many of us find ourselves stumbling through. Despite his absence, I'm sure this will be a lively affair. By all means arrive in person at the PCA to see what other print-makers might be in town for this group show.

Robert Qualters and Charlee Brodsky are luminaries of the Pittsburgh scene, and I'll be looking forward to taking a close look at their collaboration, Autumn. I'm unfamiliar with the remaining stuff listed for the night, but I expect I'll find at least one more pleasant surprise. It can all be seen for a mere $5 (+ cash for the bar), between 5:30 and 8PM.

On the lowbrow tip, Zombo Gallery is having its first show in partnership with the new ToonSeum, This "show and sell" includes Mike Peters ("Mother Goose and Grimm"), Terri Liebenson ("Pajama Diaries"), Rob Rogers (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), Wayno, Joe Wos, Lee Moder ("Painkiller Jane" and "Wonder Woman"),Tom Richmond (Mad Magazine), and many more. The reception runs from 6-11PM. It's altogether fitting that a collection of cartoonists be gathered here at Zombo's place in Lawrenceville.

If you aren't doing anything right after work, you can check out an appearance by The Yes Men, "activist-artists" who delight in taking on the bureaucratic and corporate interests that keep us down. KEEP IT SLICK: Infiltrating Capitalism with The Yes Men opens at CMU's Regina Gouger Miller Gallery this Friday, from 5-8PM. The event includes the "How To Be A Yes Man Workshop" and a "Business Casual Reception". If you haven't seen these guys, you need to know that they are both hilarious and thought-provoking. Some of their stunts have included a presentation at a prestigious American business school dedicated to explaining the benefits of "recycled meat", and an address to the World Trade Organization that included a tear-away suit hiding a giant inflatable phallus with a surveillance camera on its head.


I've not yet taken the opportunity to visit Lawrenceville's newest art space, the LUKE and ELOY Gallery (5169 Butler Street) - mostly because they hold their opening receptions during Saturday afternoons (11AM-5PM). But this month's show, Laughingstock: Humor in Art & Craft, sounds compelling enough to warrant a look-see. The curators ask, "Can humor and satire stimulate laughter as well as serve as a vehicle to explore serious subjects, such as feminism, the natural environment, the excesses of consumer culture, religion, sexuality, social injustice, and war ?" I guess we'll have to show up to know for sure.

Meanwhile Boxheart Gallery in Bloomfield is featuring the grand-daughter of German Expressionist Hans Groh. Irmaly Brackin employs a loose, colorful style that channels the Cuban and Latin American imagery of her childhood home of Miami. Make the trek to 4523 Liberty Avenue and find out how far the apple falls from the tree.

NOTE: For a comprehensive guide to area art events, please visit the Pittsburgh art and gallery info site. Go there often. Rick puts a lot of effort into collecting all of the relevant information, and he could use your support.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Who Put That Summum in My Backyard?

Christians are feeling harassed nowadays. At every turn they are facing persecution, denial, and even hostility. Their religion is on the brink of irrelevance, and the historical role it has played in American history is being ignored. So say the loudest among the 77% of the nation that self-identify as Christians. Frankly, this is a refrain I'm losing patience with. For someone with roots within the religion, but a lifestyle in which that heritage takes a background role, the constant whining is starting to grate. The reality is that it's difficult to go an entire day without running into a series of "God's messages"- along the road, through traditional media, and even in the workplace. But for some adherents, too much will never be enough.

One more in a string of controversies over this issue is playing itself out in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, and in the US Supreme Court. Within that small community lies Rose Garden Park, which has been home to a sculpture featuring the Ten Commandments since 1971. In 2003 a group of believers from the Summum religion donated a statue containing "The Seven Aphorisms" (which contain the tenets of their faith) to Pleasant Grove with the intention of having it displayed alongside the other works at the park. Unfortunately for the faithful, the mayor and the other town fathers rejected the gift. But when the Summum group brought the matter to the courts, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in its favor.

At issue was the characterization of private speech in the public sphere. If the Judeo-Christian message of proscription is private, then those who decided to display it in Pleasant Grove, and to exclude "The Seven Aphorisms" of Summum, have violated the intent of our Free Speech guarantees. The Appeals Court judged the action to be content-based discrimination. Yet a dissenting judge in that decision claimed that the Ten Commandments sculpture represented "government speech" because the monuments in the park were subject to city control. Somehow the contestants in this case both cite Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Association, wherein American beef producers sued to defy a congressionally-mandated marketing campaign.

It seems odd to me that the basis of argument in this case is "free speech" rather than "freedom of religion". I have no qualms about saying that the action of the Pleasant Grove municipal leaders has violated the Establishment Clause. If this is (as they contend) "government speech", then they should not be allowed to favor the doctrines of one religion, while discounting those of another, more obscure faith. That seems obvious to me, and in fact this doctrinaire approach was something that our "founding fathers" were trying to escape when they distinguished us from European society. In the years since our promising start, Europe has evolved out of its reliance on religious law, and we have been "Left Behind", so to speak.

There's an inherent danger in prying open our government to the influences of any established religion. Even among Christian sects there are plenty of disparities that distinguish one from another. And there are still millions of citizens who subscribe to other faiths, or forego them altogether. Legal authority should be kept separate from spiritual authority. Objections that Christianity is indelibly connected to our history are beside the point- slavery, genocide, sexism, and exploitation are also tied to our past. If you open the door to one set of faith-based ideas in the public sphere, you must welcome (and even seek out) the balance of alternate views. It simply doesn't matter how odd you find them, or how much you disagree.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Fairness Doctrine.

Within the months leading up to the presidential election, it was virtually impossible to tune into Far Right talk radio without hearing one or another of the interchangeable voices bemoan the possibility of the re-institution of the Fairness Doctrine. These hyperventilating hacks have every reason to fear the possibility that such rules will be brought back. The extremely narrow perspective that emanates from the public airwaves threatens to poison the political dialog in our nation permanently. How did the AM/FM bands reach such a state? It was the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine (as well as the deregulation of the radio broadcast industry) during the Reagan years that created the current climate.

The original policy (created in 1949) was an attempt by the Federal Communications Commission to require all parties with a broadcast license to present controversial social and political issues in an honest, equitable, and balanced manner. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the FCC's power to regulate access to any media wherein channels are "limited". However, our federal Judicial Branch has not required the FCC to do so. In 1974, that ruling board seemed content to pronounce that licensees were voluntarily following the spirit of the rules, and thus had no need to intervene. But it left the door open to act on the policy in the future.

It was FCC Chairman and Reagan-Appointee Mark Fowler that announced in 1985 his intention to repeal parts of the Doctrine, saying that it violated the Free Speech guarantees of the 1st Amendment. In 1987 the Fairness Doctrine was abolished. Congress had attempted to block such a move with its own legislation, but The Gipper vetoed the bill. However two provisions of the Doctrine remained in place until 2000*- the "personal attack rule" and the "political editorial rule". The first mandated that an individual or small group under attack on a licensed radio station be notified in writing by the broadcaster, sent a transcript of the attack, and have the opportunity to reply for free on that same station. The second rule said that whenever a broadcaster made a political endorsement, the opposing candidate was to be notified and offered a chance to respond.

President-Elect Barack Obama is on record as saying he does not support the return of the Fairness Doctrine, but he does favor media-ownership caps and network neutrality. Yet there have been several key Democratic figures who have called for the re-imposition of The Fairness Doctrine. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D- NM) told a conservative radio host that "for many, many years we operated under a Fairness Doctrine in this country, and I think the country was well-served. I think the public discussion was at a higher level and more intelligent in those days than it has become since." In addition House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen Richard Durban (D-IL) and Sen. John Kerry have all embraced the idea of bringing the Doctrine back.

For the last two decades, Rush Limbaugh, and his many clones that dominate our airwaves, have grown increasingly bolder in their vilification of opponents. A constant stream of extremist Right Wing propaganda is offered (free-of-charge) 24-7 throughout the frequency range of radio.
In many areas (such as Western Pennsylvania) there is no alternative voice available. Huge conglomerates like Clear Channel and Sinclair Broadcasting have used the powers of monopoly to keep competitors outside of the market. The costs of setting up an operation to rival the corporate media giants are prohibitive. Nutty "conservative" programming runs rough-shod over a vulnerable segment of the populace that is more than willing to accept the lies on offer. Something needs to change, and the "Commons" of the air restored to The People.

* As Wikipedia states, "The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the FCC to justify these corollary rules in light of the decision to repeal the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC did not provide prompt justification and ultimately ordered their repeal in 2000."

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Monday, November 10, 2008

The Political Litmus Test.

One of the things that was so refreshing about being an Obama supporter was the vast array of thinkers, statesmen, artists, actors and writers that came out publicly for his candidacy. The list of people that I respected who decided to back Obama during this election cycle is long and impressive. It seemed that every week some other figure was coming out to back the Illinois senator. While a lot of these people were predictable, there were quite a few that came as a surprise. Yet what was most remarkable was that I was experiencing much the same phenomena in my own life. The vast majority (and there were really very few exceptions) of the folks that I'm close with felt the same as me when it came to picking our next president.

It's hard for me not to use this variable as a litmus test. The two candidates were so starkly differentiated that they seemed to effectively divide the American populace into camps, and identification with one or the other suggests a fairly distinct profile in terms of philosophy and world view. Perhaps it's silly to consider political affiliation as a factor one uses in determining who he/she would like to spend time with. Maybe it's unfair to become biased toward an individual with such a radically different life perspective that they would pick the ticket that one abhors. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that these associations didn't matter to me. In fact, I could give specific examples from my own experience that demonstrate otherwise.

I realize that this is a crucial time in American history, and that it's important to the future of the nation that some common ground be discovered to mark the path forward. I noted as much in a post after last Tuesday. Still there's something grating about suggestions that Obama must "govern from the center". Commentators from sources like the Weekly Standard and The National Review are trying to make the case that the country remains moderately conservative, despite what the polls showed last week. It's not difficult to figure out why they would insist upon that highly dubious assumption. Their side lost, and lost big. They know that it's the end of an era in America, and they are very unhappy about that fact.

Before the President-Elect and his new team accepts the assertion that bipartisanship requires paying homage to a discredited approach to American governance, I hope they take a few minutes to consider the quality of the voices who still stubbornly cling to their failed and outmoded belief systems. I think it's vital to remember that those who moan the most loudly for "compromise" are the same people that treated their opposition with so much contempt when they held consolidated power. Now they are forced to cry for a "fair and balanced" playing field. It's amusing how the "mandates" of 2000 and 2004 were so much narrower than the "tight race" just concluded, regardless of the actual numbers.

The reality is that the other side has been mortally weakened, is in a state of palpable disarray, and overcome with a breathless sense of desperation. This is a group that once saw itself as invulnerable. Now they are asking for temperance, and hoping for mercy. Their strategists and leaders have always preached that capitulation is self-destructive. They weren't extending any breaks to their critics during the last eight years. They did everything they could to marginalize their opponents. The temptation to repay them in kind is virtually insurmountable. It's not as if I have the urge to destroy the opposition utterly, but rather (playing off the immortal words of Far Right extremist Grover Norquist) "to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Jonathan Pincus, "Base Instincts" (2001).

There are numerous theories as to why certain individuals commit terrible deeds, and through my extensive reading in the true crime genre, I've encountered many of them. As you are probably aware, Americans are particularly drawn to the idea that "evil" causes the unwary to strike out against their fellow humans. According to this perspective, the devil makes them do it. This explanation reinforces their belief that man is best served by seeking guidance in the Lord. It also appears to justify a general societal orientation toward punishment, rather than treatment or prevention. There are "victims" and "perpetrators" and it is easy to determine who is who. People are endowed by their Creator with "free will" and are solely responsible for the consequences of their actions.

I'm not totally unsympathetic to this characterization. I sympathize with those who have a fully developed sense of justice. While I shy away from descriptors like "good" and "evil", it is often quite clear that some of the people in our midst wish to do us harm. I have no desire to see the death penalty eliminated. I think the ultimate focus should be on identifying the ne'er-do-wells and applying every strategy to minimize their ability to cause social discord. There should be no tolerance for any individual that seeks to force their will on another by violence. That role belongs to society as a whole, and is determined by a process involving "consensus" and "democracy". In other words, it's appropriate for public debate- not private action.

Still I have no doubt that prevention is the most effective way of decreasing the incidence of violent crime. Unfortunately we've entered an era more interested in reactionary responses than proactive measures. Cries for retribution surround us as the complexity and chaos of our environment increases. Anti-intellectualism is a growing force in the United States, and people seem less willing to participate in objective analysis. The results are rampant inefficiency in the criminal justice system and social regression. Because of these threats, I wish more professionals involved in law enforcement (and especially those working in the court system) would read Jonathan Pincus' Base Instincts.

The central idea behind Pincus' study is that violent crime is the result of a coincidence of factors that includes neurological damage to the brain, abuse during childhood, and mental illness (such as paranoia, mood disorders, etc.). This may sound like common sense, but it is surprising how many people refuse to consider the ramifications of NOT taking into account these factors. So many are looking for the magic bullet, or the unifying theory that can explain every criminal action. I understand that temptation, but it is at its root simplistic and naive. The suggestion that one must decide between "nature" or "nurture" components does more harm than good. They are quite obviously not mutually exclusive.

Jonathan Pincus is no "mere" social philosopher, but rather a practicing neurologist at the Georgetown University Hospital. He has conducted in-depth research with a diverse range of murderers. He has experience with serial killers, mass murderers, and those violent individuals we have been fortunate enough to arrest before they could graduate into one of those first two categories. Throughout his book, he covers the importance of social histories, neurological examination, and psychiatric testing. There are sections throughout that present terribly disturbing firsthand accounts of violent actions. Gradually he focuses the reader on the importance of confronting child abuse, as he identifies that strategy as the one containing the most possibilities for success.

I recommend Base Instincts for any serious reader with a strong stomach and an unflinching commitment to confronting dark realities.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens, "Crazy Love" (2007).

I finally got to sit down and watch a movie the other night. The roller coaster of national events has kept my head spinning for weeks. The level of engagement of the US citizenry is as about as intense as I've ever seen it. Instead of talking about the latest celebrity scandal, or the victim of some heinous crime, people actually seem to be concerned with the world outside of their circumscribed circles. I've not often been described as someone drawn to looking at the bright side, but there it is. Anyway, I knew it was time for some concentrated leisure, and that didn't involve sitting down in front of the computer. So I scanned the many titles of my DVD shelf looking for a suitably entertaining diversion.

Crazy Love (2007) is nothing like it sounds. It's not a charming little indie starring Jennifer Aniston. Nor is it a blockbuster with Robin Williams. Instead it's the story of Burt Pugach, a New York City "ambulance-chaser" who had a very successful law firm and owned a nightclub. It's also the tale of how he spotted a woman named Linda Riss, and immediately fell in love with her. Burt had to have her, and set out immediately to court her with roses and dinner. Riss was a lovely girl with a cynicism influenced by family loss and a healthy skepticism of men. Still, she was captivated by Pugach's success and seeming charm. If only he would have been as pretty as her, it might have been a match "made in heaven".

It's true that Burt Pugach was far from being a "hunk". He was inordinately thin, weak-chinned, and kind of goofy looking. But as the old man said- "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", and often one's vision is clouded by great wealth and lavish generosity. It certainly helped that Pugach owned his own plane, and knew many stars. Bottom line, Burt Pugach was completely devoted to Linda Riss. This presented a problem, as he was already married. When Linda found out that he was betrothed, it seemed to make sense. Why would a prosperous man like him still be single? Linda decided that she couldn't continue to see Burt, as long as he had a wife. Pugach responded by promising to get a divorce.

One of the enduring powers that women hold over men is their right of refusal. Although Linda definitely liked boys, she wasn't the easy sort. She refused to put out until marriage. This drove Pugach up a wall, and he started to imagine that his beloved was straying. He badgered her until she offered to take him to a doctor that would verify her virginity. He accepted, and soon found out that he had been wrong. He redoubled his efforts to keep her, promising that his divorce was in motion. Meanwhile, Linda was starting to believe that her suitor was insane. She went on vacation to Florida with a girlfriend and fell in love with a stud. When she came back, Pugach became completely unhinged. If he couldn't have her, he didn't want anyone else to.

As Linda's relationship with her new man developed, Burt intensified his efforts to get her back. He realized that he was losing the game when he was informed of Linda's engagement. Some jealous men simply stew, and others take action. Burt Pugach hired some men to show up at Linda's house and throw lye in her face. As a result, she was hospitalized and permanently blinded. The sordid story of the disbarred attorney who had disfigured his ex-girlfriend hit the media with a big splash. Burt was put on trial, convicted, and imprisoned. This should have been the end of the road for the romantic possibilities between Linda and Burt. But it wasn't. What happened next should justify your search for the DVD... I'm not telling.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

What's With the Price of Oil?

Note: I wrote this post several weeks ago, but am only getting around to posting it now.

Last week, while the Dow Jones index was showing a precipitous decline, my thoughts turned toward "opportunities" to protect the current value of my savings. I've always been cautious regarding investments, to the point of (perhaps) hurting myself. Even when things looked rosy, I hesitated to buy into the American economy. For far too long the financial system has felt like a shell game. It doesn't seem like we make anything anymore, although (of course) I realize that isn't really true. Still I get the feeling that, more than anything else, the "success" of the dollar has much more to do with how fast people can keep it moving. So much of the time it seems like nothing is being produced in that process.

I'd be the last person to try and claim any expertise when it comes to understanding market forces. But now I am suspicious of so many who have put themselves forward as experts. There have been so many layers of complexity and obfuscation that no one really can provide a straight answer that will describe the current situation. Most of the time it appears that people are merely making decisions based upon "gut feelings". A consensus builds that the current climate is favorable, or alternatively that it is perilous, and ordinary folks tend to accept whatever conclusions are put forth in the name of "conventional wisdom". Ultimately if the argument can be framed in terms of supply and demand, then the argument is all the more convincing.

So what makes the price per barrel of crude drop so quickly at the same time the market is tanking? Logic suggests that as the US dollar value decreases, the cost of gasoline should rise (and vice-versa). Yet one of the most dramatic downturns of the economy in 100 years has been accompanied by sharply decreasing prices. One could suggest that the oncoming recession (or depression, or whatever) is has been affecting the demand for oil. After all, less activity requires less fuel. However, I'd be surprised if the markets are really responding that fast. One could also point to the frenzied speculation on energy commodities over the past year. That could certainly be playing a role as well.

The interesting thing is that when I talked about investing in oil commodities to a friend who many recognize as a "financial wizard", he advised me against it. His outlook on the potential recovery of the banking and credit systems is intensely pessimistic, and he expects oil prices to continue on a steep decline. And yet that still seems counterintuitive to me, as I would expect a functional resource of undeniable utility to retain (or even increase) its value during a sustained economic downturn. People may look to cut costs, but they still need to get to work. Add to that the variable of home heating costs during the upcoming winter, and everything appears further out-of-whack. It's hard not to suspect that there are shenanigans at work.

I've never gotten around to a formal study of the phenomenon, but it seems to me that gasoline prices always fall before a presidential election. I realize that oil trading is tied to the US currency, and that certainly complicates the picture even more. Ultimately we are at the mercy of these fluctuations, and it's disturbing that external forces could be manipulating the situation to make us act in a particular way. Alternatively, oil could merely be caught up in the huge sell-off of Wall Street, with everyone (including hedge funds) rushing to liquidate all their assets at once. I wonder if this affected the election cycle, with the challenge of energy independence seemingly at the top of everyone's list. I hope this crucial issue doesn't get relegated to the back-burner again.

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