Friday, February 27, 2009

The only thing we have to fear...

I know that many of you are afraid of what's coming. You think things are going to get bad around here. Maybe a bit of perspective can help:

Do You Realize?


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Don't get it in my eye...

Today is "Ash Wednesday", the observation day for a ritual that has always (quite frankly) freaked me out. It's easy to wonder why folks would want to walk around with the residue of ashes on their foreheads, especially when it is applied to make the sign of a long-past sacrifice. That in itself speaks to the mystery of our modern condition. So many people venerate a symbol of capital punishment. But this wasn't just any execution, was it? This brand represents the material death of a figure that many people now consider their savior. This is a puzzle that you can unravel to expose a chain of associations that stretches to infinity. Still, I think it's important to take a step back and think about it all pragmatically.

This day kicks off Lent, a period of abstinence that ends on Easter, which brings about the symbolic return of the aforementioned savior. This resurrection (if you will) marks the official formation of "the Church". But that's getting ahead of ourselves. The essential question is, "Why celebrate the death on Earth of a righteous man, condemned for others' sins, and made to suffer agonies that are ironically referred to as 'The Passion'?" It kind of sets a precedent for a society built upon obliteration. The historical Jesus is said to have performed many miracles before meeting his end at the age of 33 (?)... imagine what he might have done if he had lived to a ripe old age.

If The Christ could turn water into wine by his early 30's, think about the wondrous tricks he could have performed in "middle age". Perhaps he could have written his own books instead of having his followers (many of whom had never even met him) do it for him. We can only imagine that Word made flesh. Yet that wouldn't have suited the narrative. His public demise was necessary as an instrument of control for all of those who lived in his midst. People needed to learn to atone for their indulgences. What would you have done with a man who made folks aware that they were already part of "God"? That's way too empowering for the flock- better a dead shepherd than a liberator, right?

Now we are told that a "Day of Reckoning" is at hand. We will all have our turn to be judged. However, we won't be evaluated based upon our Earthly deeds. "Our Father" will determine our fealty to the message. Did Jesus die for you? Was his agony on that cross necessary to cleanse you of your "sin" (never mind if it is sufficient, because that's an entirely different subject)? Can you get a pass that easily? Today you will see lots of people who believe that they can. Their foreheads will be marked quite conspicuously. They'll make a concerted effort not to eat meat on Fridays, or they'll quit looking at porn, or make some other kind of great sacrifice. This will signify their awareness of the "need for redemption".

Anyway... it's all very strange in a mytho-poetical way. I only have the vaguest recollections of all of this ritualized behavior. I suppose that the faithful line up in front of the proxy (or priest, minister, and/or pastor) to be blessed with the charred remains of year-old palm leaves. This all sounds shamanic to me. There are certainly pre-historical antecedents for this type of behavior. But even more bizarre is the addition of "Oil of the Catechumens" to the ashy mix. What is it and what's with it? A "catechumen" is someone who is undergoing preparation to be baptized. At least that's what Wikipedia says. Yet I can't for the life of me figure out what the oil is made out of, or made from*. It's another mystery.

* Besides olive oil... that much I could find out.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kerry Max Cook, "Chasing Justice" (2007).

As if I didn't have enough stuff to think about, I continue to struggle with my support for the death penalty. It's not that my perception of humanity has altered in any significant way. I still run up against the thorny juxtaposition of my diet (which includes many animal products) and my belief that people are simply animals (albeit a bit more sophisticated in their brain development). If I'm willing to eat something, then I have to be willing to put it to death, or at least be responsible for its slaughter, right? Sure, I'll take a pass on the feast of the dead criminal- but that doesn't mean I'm willing to forgo his/her passing. All "god's" creatures die, one way or another... and we all have a hand in that process.

Yet I'm not altogether comfortable with the company that this particular position puts me in. All too frequently I find myself at odds with death penalty advocates on just about every other political issue. And on an intuitive level, I usually don't want to be associated with them. On the other hand, the majority of those who would seek to abolish executions are folks that I respect and sometimes even admire. Why wouldn't I want to throw in my lot with them? On the other hand, I can't seem to transcend my repulsion toward the idea of out-of-control homo sapien proliferation. I guess it's akin to the way most people feel about cockroaches. There's just too many of them, and they overwhelm environments once they take root.

That doesn't mean that I don't love individuals. I can usually find something to care about in everyone, once I get to know them a bit. I'm definitely not a misanthrope on a personal level. It's only the idea of humanity that bothers me. Anyway... so yeah, why not just eliminate those who are clearly beyond redemption? Pluck them from society so they don't perpetuate their behavior? I don't find many of the counterarguments convincing. The ultimate penalty is unfairly applied, but that's a systemic issue. The appeals process is costly, but once again it comes down to management. These are problems that must be addressed. However, they aren't sufficient to convince me that capital punishment is "wrong".

What does give me pause is the reality that the innocent are sometimes executed. Since techniques to establish DNA comparisons have become cheaper and more accurate, over a 100 men have been released from death row. Kerry Max Cook is just one of them. He spent 20 years in Texas prisons (notorious for being among the worst in the nation), and he put everything he had along the way into establishing his innocence. Incredibly, the very conservative Texas Court of Appeals reversed his conviction three times. There was so much corruption in Smith County (where Cook lived) that prosecutor misconduct caused a long series of injustices. Reading this man's autobiography is a harrowing experience.

Kerry Cook was a young, sexually ambivalent man when he was charged with raping, killing, and mutilating a woman who lived in the apartment complex where he was staying. There was scant evidence that Cook was guilty, but it was used to build a distorted version of the tragic events that took place. The depictions of the courtroom dramas that sent Cook repeatedly back to prison are troubling. Perhaps even more so are the accounts of horrid abuse Cook faced while incarcerated. Chasing Justice seems like a reasonably objective retelling of the author's experiences, and lacks the pretension that often plagues convict memoirs. It certainly makes me think twice about allowing such a thing to occur in our "open and democratic" society.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Nice to Meet Me!

I've often had enough hubris to honestly desire that I had several clones, so that I could see and do everything I have ever wanted to. It's an obviously ludicrous proposition for a number of reasons. First of all, the technology isn't available to the middle class. In fact one can make a damn good argument that it never will be. If all of a sudden millions of Americans could go out to the local strip mall medical facility and purchase (at a reasonable rate) a few body doubles, then this would be an inordinately overcrowded nation. Sure... a lot of beloved pets could find their second lives, and of course people (especially the more religious) would be suspicious (as they are with most innovation), but eventually their collective resistance would wear down.

There would be an abundance of folks on the streets, and that would necessarily mean a surplus of the type of assholes I already wish would somehow disappear (in a very humane way, naturally, with very little suffering). It's one thing to have to face the prospect of preparing for, and bringing to birth, another human being. However, what if one didn't have to worry about the messy aspects of carrying an unborn child? There would be no morning sickness, nor swelling, nor all the rest of the stuff that's currently included to make women (and their partners) second guess their momentous decisions. It would simply be a matter of saving up the money, and filling out a bit of paperwork.

Obviously the government would have to get involved. There's simply no way around that in a society in this modern age. There are already so many financial choices that seem impulsive and uninformed. Just look at the McMansions that suburbanites purchased during the housing boom that are now the focus of foreclosures. The target to be cloned would certainly have to assume some responsibility for their new facsimile. Especially if the clones in question started out as infants. But you see, this is where my entire scenario breaks down. Because scientists wouldn't be offering you the choice. They couldn't actually clone the YOU that is you right now. It would be a tabla rasa, so to speak, unsullied by your own personal experiences.

However, let's assume for the purpose of hijinks that they could actually create an exact replica of you, the way you exist in this present. I know you'd be at least a little tempted. Maybe you could treat the newly created being as a shadow, and make him/her work two jobs, giving you a healthy percentage of his/her total earnings. But sooner or later some activists would get together some pesky little group to step on all your fun. They'd be marching and protesting about "clone rights", and exploitation of the "clone class". Still this is another alternative reality that is unlikely, as far as I can determine from imaging what my own clone would be like. He would be trying to figure out a way to put the clone label on me, and reverse the charges.

It really is a nightmare when I think about it. What if my double figured out a way to be better than me, despite the contrived similarities in experience and genome? That wouldn't be good for my self-esteem. What if my wife decided that she liked him better? There would have to be some serious negotiations to make sure that the situation worked out for my benefit. Of course I couldn't rely on my current powers of manipulation, as my clone would already know all of those tricks. Could I work with myself, if that self was manifest in a separate body? I think that's the ultimate question that needs to be answered. It would be a shame if I somehow wasted an opportunity like that.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Gambling... our future.

A few years ago, the wise men who lead Pennsylvania decided to legalize "gambling". This meant that they would issue licenses to a few lucky parties to build casinos to house slot machines. Apparently these would serve as tourist attractions, or alternatively keep local gambling addicts in town to spend their money (as opposed to, say, having these folks drive to Wheeling, WV). Personally, I don't go in for this sort of "gaming", and I was decidedly uninterested in having the opportunity to play slots in my hometown. At the same time, I felt that if people really wanted to waste their money this way... why shouldn't they be allowed to? Who am I to judge folks and the way they spend their hard-earned cash?

As far as I understood, the reason to allow such activities was to generate revenue that could offset property tax reductions. I've been a home-owner for over a half decade, so this sounded good to me. And I had no moral qualms about folks throwing their dollars in the public kitty, with irrational dreams of becoming wealthy overnight. I wasn't sure why these gambling licenses were limited to slot machines, nor could I figure out the particular appeal of such a game. It didn't seem like anything that could ever hold my interest even if I was interested in placing bets. Why not include high-stakes poker or blackjack? Hell, even something like the roulette wheel seems more captivating. But to each their own.

It's been years since the legislation allowing "gaming" was passed, and Western PA is still waiting for the grand opening of the casino. Meanwhile times are getting tougher. So now PA Governor Ed Rendell is casting about for other ways to generate money for the state. His latest idea is to legalize the video poker machines that have been part of the bar/cafe scene for as long as I've been in the 'Burgh. I don't remember seeing them in Eastern PA, but I'm aware that they've been quite popular around these parts. The first time I saw a back-room full of these things in a ma-and-pop convenience store, I was confounded. After I got my first job at a bar, I realized that these places did indeed pay out winnings in cash. I assumed the entire business was mob-run. I knew it was illegal.

Rendell believes that the state can generate serious income (he estimates $550 million) for higher education by bringing these operations "above board". In his proposal, PA would get 50% of the take and leave the rest for the individual owner of the machine. I'm not quite sure where that leaves the syndicates that have been in charge of this illicit business for decades. Obviously there are some parties whose interests are at stake. The anti-gambling lobby couldn't help but oppose this. But the most vocal resistance is coming from the new casino operators who believe that video poker will eat into their own profits. Ultimately, at least a few lawmakers suspect that Rendell is simply positioning himself to push through table games as an alternative.

Meanwhile, PA State Senator Jeffrey Piccola (out of Harrisburg) has entered the fray with a counter-proposal. He's putting forth a plan that intends to boost tuition aid assistance for state schools that would (speculatively) serve an additional 25,000 students. But he wouldn't do it through legalizing video poker. Piccola wants to cut funding for the state's museums, private colleges, and art programs. He also wants to end the tax credit that Pennsylvania has extended to attract film production companies. It's difficult to understand Mr. Piccola's logic on this matter. He wants to enable more folks to get higher education, at the expense of the type of jobs and careers that such training will prepare them for. Let's all hail another genius politico.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Sky Has Fallen... (or was that just the dollar?)

WE all know the American economy is suffering. Just how bad it's going to get is a question on everyone's mind. Turn on the news and see how long it takes for a reminder of our plight. Wait for the latest announcement of huge corporate layoffs. Listen to the terms "stimulus package" and "bail-out". Suffer through the poor attempts at poetry. Check out the Dow Jones Index. If you can make it to the end of the broadcast, kick back for the human interest story. Can they still put a happy face on their product? This is not your father's evening news (unless you are a senior citizen). The fear is palpable, no matter how well-coiffed the news anchor is. This is a bigger security story than "terrorism".

Great. Now you know the truth. We have dug ourselves a very deep hole, and it has widened into a chasm. People are gathered around its periphery, trying to determine if it will be less painful to skirt around the edges or simply dive in headfirst. There is a huge industry devoted to making sure your choice is the latter. Throw a penny into the darkness and find out when it hits bottom. Now try it with a dollar, or a trillion of them. There are hundreds of "experts" and talking heads trying to fathom the depths. Some are nearsighted, and some are the opposite. They will tell you their predictions. They will help you make an informed choice. Maybe they will push you into the darkness.

I know that the picture is far from rosy. It just seems that everyone is trying to outdo each other with their Cassandra calls. Are there going to be people dying in the streets? Will they be expiring from hunger or loss of blood? Will China or India overtake the United States and become the next superpower? Will Bin Laden proclaim his victory over the West? Will your ancestors rise out of their mouldering graves and remind you that they told you so? Will your children stare at you in mute accusation? Do they know that their destiny is one of panhandling and indentured servitude? What compromises will you have to make to feed your family, or pay your mortgage? Will you have to serve fries at McDonald's?

There's just not that much useful information available. Do you have any relatives that are old enough to remember what it was like to live during the Great Depression of the 30's? Don't you wish that you had taken the opportunity to have that little chat? Were you too busy laughing at their strange little habits? Was it the way they ate leftovers? Was it the fact that they never threw anything away? Who would live like that in a time of abundance? Maybe (in high school) you heard about what they had lived through, but it never seemed quite real enough for you, did it? What did it have to do with your life, and your grand prosperous future, and your free markets of infinite growth?

Perhaps it's time to turn off the television, and start thinking about how your life may change. It just may be a time for reassessment. What is it in your life that you cannot lose? I'm already starting to think about ways to ensure my (and my family's) well-being. And I've come to the conclusion that the corporate media isn't helping very much. It's alarmist, which probably reflects the reality of the situation, but they aren't offering much useful information. I've talked to my friends about the things they know well. I've looked at my lifestyle and thought about the things that would be possible to give up. The funny thing is that a lot of what I have cannot be depreciated along with the value of currency. I'm finding it enlightening to gain that perspective.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Speak of the Devil.

I've been thinking lately of the Devil. There are many names for what I am referring to and I'd like to make it clear exactly what I'm talking about. I'm not necessarily speaking of the "Anti-God" so present in the conception of many Christians. My subject here is not one who presides over a mystical place of eternal damnation featuring a "lake of fire". In fact I'm not interested in any "otherworldy phenomenon", but rather in the moral calculus of our own earthly existence. If something akin to "evil" exists, then there must somewhere live the embodiment of that quality, or at least the single individual that represents its greatest accumulation. This creature would be the best candidate for the position of "the Devil".

At heart I am a relativist. I tend to discount broad and sweeping terms, and the words "good" and "evil" are examples of the type that tend to create what I consider "false dichotomies". But perhaps they serve as useful shorthand for the effects that the actions of certain people have on others. Certainly many agree that someone like Adolf Hitler fits the common definition of "evil", regardless of the reality that the memory of his deeds are still honored by his philosophical heirs. Similarly, a majority of folks who are familiar with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. consider him a paragon of "the good", yet there are still those who resent the things that he did to permanently change society.

Still there is likely a greater proportion of humanity that puts stock in these categorizations than rejects them. Some believe that "evil" and "good" exist outside the human mind in an objective sense, and work as external forces that possess people. They are somehow beyond the everyday decisions and actions that individuals choose. Others think that these are traits that manifest themselves in the "heart" and/or brain. Obviously this introduces a factor of subjectivity into the moral equation. Furthermore, there is a minority that views these things as more of an allegory. Maybe they aren't willing to commit to the absolute existence of "good" and "evil", but they find them useful labels in describing the choices that people make.

I think the best case for the existence of "evil" is the violation of consensuality. But that's not necessarily within the purview of this particular post, so I won't expand on it. Often "the Devil" takes the physical form of temptation. Someone who is a "bad influence" can be referred to as "the Devil". He/she may try to persuade the individual to do things that he/she believes that they should not do, even though they may want to. I see this as a cop-out. This type of externalization seems like a convenient justification for all manner of misbehavior. The desire to act out obviously manifests itself internally. If you don't have the desire to engage in whatever you define as "sin", then there's no reason to carry it out.

To me, the most intriguing form of "The Devil" is more of a poetic representation. This is an archetype that has found its expression in arts and letters. One notable embodiment of this specter is Dr. Faustus. This is "The Devil" that you make a deal with to get something at the expense of your soul. In this story, "The Devil" is a type of bogeyman who serves as the ultimate heavy in a cautionary tale. He makes you face the truth, and exposes what you are willing to give up to realize your most self-interested dreams. And for this he extracts a terrible price. In giving up the core of your ethics, you merge with "evil" itself. The game is over, and any distinctions melt away. You have become the symbol of your darkest urges.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

What is "Informed Faith"?

One of the things I particularly enjoy and appreciate about my circle of friends (and I'm fortunate enough to have a wide circle of them) is the level of conversation that often occurs, even when we are all kicking back on a weekend night. This past Friday was specifically enlightening as our banter turned to the issue of faith. Given the turn our nation has taken over the last decade or so, faith is a concept that has increasingly assumed a level of pejorative association among certain quarters of society. The reactionary turning toward fundamentalism has turned a lot of people away from the idea. I suppose that this issue isn't specifically contained to the US, but has rather become an international crisis.

Taking into account that context, it's not surprising that someone I would respect would lump all forms of faith together under the same banner, and ridicule all and sundry adherents. Yet I think that this type of generalization can lead to a narrowing of an important dialog. I've come to believe in a wide variegation of attitudes, definitions, and approaches to faith. I've been trending this way for a while, but it's mostly been at a subconscious or an intuitive level. I have to give a shout-out here to J.C. Hallman and (as an extension) William James for helping lead me to the language necessary for framing my thoughts. Ultimately truth is a function of an individual's perspective of the consequences of his/her actions.

As a starting point I'd like to suggest that there is a simplistic but substantial difference between "Faith" and faith. The former entails the fundamentalist variety I mentioned earlier. In the case of "Faith", the individual formation of ideals isn't as important as the level of commitment one brings to them. One determines his/her "Faithfulness" according to how rarely (s)he questions his/her belief system. The individual earns his/her identity with acceptance bred from a revocation of rationality. In fact this is belief beyond reason (in a Kierkegaardian "leap of faith" sense). All of this is well understood and sounds almost cliché to the postmodern reader. I realize that I'm not expressing anything particularly revelatory by spelling this out.

But at the same time, those who embrace a form of pure rational scientific thought seem to be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle... for there is a level of faith involved in the paradigm of cause-and-effect as well. I believe that there are many people that never consciously acknowledge this proposition. The very nature of the empirical sciences entails a quality of mystery. We form our questions about our external reality, and then we seek to study them under certain controlled conditions to isolate a chain of causality. That's all well-and-good. However I think some folks tend to misrepresent the conclusions of such experiments as "ultimate answers".

Even if we have ample scientific data concerning specific phenomena, we still rely on a level of speculation that requires a degree of faith to help us guide our decisions. As soon as we anticipate a time beyond the present, we are unavoidably engaging in the practice of faith, no matter how informed (or alternatively misinformed) our expectations are. So I'm a bit uncomfortable when someone discounts faith outright. We may be able to apply a statistical analysis to a problem (and of course that system itself is vulnerable to a wide range of manipulations), but our understanding is still limited by the constructs of prior experience (and received preconceptions). Just as Eskimos have an expanded language to communicate the different forms of snow, I think we have to honor the idiosyncrasies of "faith".

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Sara Gruen, "Water for Elephants" (2006).

Every once in awhile a book hits the wider public consciousness, and the relatively small group of readers left in this nation recommend it to each other. Sometimes it is an activist effort- new age beliefs or other ideas that challenge the contemporary belief construct, masquerading as a novel. These often seem revelatory while you are reading them, and then slightly silly in retrospect, after a bit of time passes. And then there are other books that are hyped for their pure escapism. The discriminating reader is usually just as suspicious of these works as he/she is of polemical fiction. If it's as popular as it seems, it follows that it could well be an appeal to the lowest common denominator. In these instances, one considers the source(s) of the recommendation.

There is reading that you do while laying in the sand at the beach, and there is the kind that you engage alone at night on your living room couch. Obviously these categories are subjective and mutable. If I can identify a single quality that distinguishes Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants from most of the offerings of the American publishing industry, I'd have to say that it is a title that would find an appropriate home in the hands of a sunbather and/or a domestic recluse. It's not necessarily "highbrow literature", but it won't insult your intelligence unless you are hypercritical. It's 300 pages (and change) that turn quickly, and it has just enough meat on its skeleton to sustain the reader's imagination.

I know why the people that told me to read this did so. They know that I have a moderate obsession dedicated to "show business". I use this term in the old sense, referring to "outmoded" forms of entertainment such as vaudeville, carnivals, and independently-run amusement parks. Of course it is a reasonable leap of logic to suspect that I'd be interested in a story set within a circus company in the 1930's. Indeed it didn't take me long to get captivated by the vernacular of the traveling show. It's easily apparent that Gruen took the time to learn the language, and her work wouldn't be nearly enjoyable if she hadn't. For me, it's a quick way to my heart. I love getting into the intricacies of argot, especially when it comes to the bygone "show era".

The plot itself is only marginally compelling. The protagonist is a newly-orphaned young adult named Jacob Jankowski, who drops out of his veterinary program at Cornell right before final exams, and hops a train. He happens to land on bed of a stock car used by the Benzini Brothers Circus, a spectacle in between a "Mud Show" and Ringling Brothers. It doesn't take long for Jacob to realize that he needs to grab whatever opportunity he can, given that he is living in the midst of a Great Depression that is ravaging what used to be the Middle Class. So he embraces a new way of life, and becomes a "First of May" in the rough-and-tumble, gritty world of performers and working men that separately and together ensure that the show goes on.

Sure, Jacob falls in love with a woman (Marlena, who so happens to be married), and manages to ingratiate himself to the owner (Uncle Al) and the Superintendent of Animals (August, who is Marlena's husband), at the same time becoming mired in a nasty love triangle. It's pretty typical melodrama... basically soap opera stuff. But for me the point is not the narrative, but rather the details. Gruen took the time to research the ambiance and background of her thematic material. This effort lends a sense of authenticity to her tale. For this she deserves unreserved accolades. Ultimately it doesn't matter that the plot is predictable, or the relationships cliché. She has successfully evoked a time-and-place long past. That alone justifies all her efforts.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Farewell to Vito.

If you were expecting a "things to do in Pittsburgh" post, I'm sad to say that you are going to be disappointed. There isn't much going on this weekend in the Pittsburgh arts community. I suppose that's for the best too, because I wanted to take the time to write about something that is bound to come out sounding overly sentimental. So if you aren't in the mood for melodrama, you should probably just move on now. Because last night we had to put down my favorite cat, and I'm none too happy about it. I understand that no one can really understand what Vito meant to me, and I expect that the typical reaction will be "Oh, that's too bad", and stop right there. I think that's entirely justified, and I'd probably react the same way if we were talking about someone else's pet.

But my reality is that I've lost one of my best friends. I know that sounds utterly ridiculous to anyone that hasn't formed a close bond with an animal, and it would have sounded a bit silly to me before Vito showed up on our back porch in Lawrenceville about eight (or so) years ago. He was as skinny as a rail, and desperate to gain entry to our house. From the look of him, I guessed he wasn't even a full-grown adult yet. Whenever I would get home (we didn't have a key to the front door), he'd be waiting for me, loudly protesting my intentions to leave him outside. If I sat down on the ratty couch, he'd jump up on my lap and bump heads with me. Every time I entered the house he would try to beat the closing of the screen door. I caught him in it a few times.

At the time we already had a cat (Altaires) that we believed preferred his isolation, and we had no intentions of taking in another roommate. But somehow Altaires seemed quite chummy with the interloper. They'd actually hang out together whenever we let A. out. They ganged up against a female bully in the neighborhood. One day M. was in what served as her changing room on the second floor and she heard a mewing beyond the closed window. There was that pesky cat, pretending that he couldn't come down from the porch roof, which he no doubt had little trouble scaling. M. fell for it and let him in, and chased him around for awhile trying to expel him. She was unsuccessful, and he stayed for good.

It didn't take long for Vito (we named him as if he was a hired henchman for Altaires... he was briefly called "psycho-kitty") to wend his way into all of our hearts. Even visitors who disliked cats tended to like Vito. M. was initially dead set against having him stay, but eventually she too fell in love with him. Although he still had his front claws, he was gentle on people and furniture. He was social with humans his entire life. We took him to the vet, and learned that he had about five kinds of parasites in his system. Apparently he had been close to death. And we learned that he was already about 7 or 8 years old. He was certainly old enough to express to us that he was thankful that we took him in permanently. He never seemed to forget what we had done for him.

I'm not exactly sure how long we had Vito. It was about 8-9 years I guess. During that time he was an unfailing companion, quick to take his position on a pillow between M. and I on our bed while we slept. Often he'd perch above me over my head as I read on the couch and lick my hair or lightly nip at my skull. He never lost the habit of head-butting me when he wanted to demonstrate his affection. He was also extremely vocal, always letting me know that he was there, waiting for attention. Over the last twelve months we could tell he was in advanced age, but for the most part he maintained his essential character. At the end he lost a lot of weight and his kidneys failed.

He was obviously in pain, and tried to get outside to find a place to die. M. took him to the Animal Rescue so he could pass quickly, painlessly, and with dignity. I'll miss him and remember him with love forever.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Matt Ogens, "Confessions of a Superhero" (2007).

Last night I felt the need to kick back by myself and absorb a movie. I used to do that all the time, and the habit resulted in multiple posts with reviews. Lately I haven't made the time to see films by myself, and it was refreshing to have the opportunity to do so. I could have wasted ten or fifteen minutes agonizing over what title to pick. I certainly have a large stockpile of shrink-wrapped and unwatched DVDs waiting for me. But for some reason, I knew ahead of time that I wanted to see a documentary that I recently acquired called Confessions of a Superhero. It was produced by Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me fame) and directed by newcomer Matt Ogens. I had heard from others that it was well worth watching.

Ogens somehow became fascinated by the costumed characters that pose for photographs with tourists in front of Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. These folks aren't affiliated with the business attached to the sidewalk they haunt, and in some ways they are really just glorified pan-handlers. Supposedly there are up to 70 different people donning tights, capes and whatnot to hustle dollars from the rubes. There is a Ghost Rider, a dude from Hellraiser, an Elmo, a Cookie Monster, a Chewbacca, a couple of Marilyn Monroes, and a handful of Spidermen. Certainly the assortment of masked freaks changes with the times, depending upon whatever pop culture items are currently in vogue.

But the director of Confessions wisely concentrated on four individuals who apparently had the most intriguing personal stories. We meet Jennifer Wenger (Wonder Woman), Maxwell Allen (Batman), Joe McQueen (The Incredible Hulk), and Christopher Dennis (Superman). It's easy to identify Dennis right off the bat as the informal leader and unofficial representative of the profession. His obsession with the caped hero seems to overwhelm almost every other aspect of his life. Footage of the small apartment he shares with his wife discloses an environment chock-a-bloc with collectibles and memorabilia, all devoted to the worship of the man from Kal-El. And yet somehow that's not even the weirdest part of his personal story.

One might expect anyone that dresses up in costume in order to bum money from strangers to be eccentric, and the folks that Ogens highlights are certainly not exceptions. The girl that plays Wonder Woman was reportedly Ms. Popularity back in high school, and she is probably the most normal of the bunch. I assume she was chosen to add a sexy element to the proceedings. McQueen also seems fairly sane, despite the fact that he spent a number of years as a homeless man, and his decision to appropriate an identity that entails wearing a suffocating body suit in a climate that often exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The George Clooney lookalike that plays Batman, on the other hand, is completely off his gourd.

If you don't feel at least a little bit sorry for these posers, then I suspect that you aren't fully human. Without exception, they have all landed in their silly outfits in order to "make it" in the Hollywood film industry. It doesn't seem like any wild stretch to predict that they will all inevitably fail in this quest. Yet somehow they have found a means to stay in the public eye, and engage the world of entertainment that they love. Is what these people do any more ridiculous or pathetic then dressing up in a mouse costume in Disney World? Yes, they depend on the largess of passersby to make their living... but at least they work for themselves and control their own destinies. And they all get to appear in this beautifully-shot flick.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

William Gay, "Twilight" (2006).

I put off reading William Gay's Twilight for months after I found it on the shelves of a used book store. I had already been through his first two novels over the past twelve months, and I didn't want to run out of his works too quickly. Gay is an older man at 65, and I'm not sure how many more novels he has in him. I like the idea of setting one by for a rainy day. On the other hand, I've become accustomed to thinking about this author as one of my favorites, and I feel some obligation to complete my reading of his output in its entirety. Now I have just one collection of short stories to go, and then I'll have to wait for the publication of his work-in-progress, which is apparently titled The Lost Country.

Unlike Gay's previous two novels (Provinces of Night and The Long Home), Twilight is almost devoid of humor. It concerns a macabre discovery unearthed by siblings Kenneth and Corrie Tyler. Apparently the local undertaker (Fenton Breece) is kinkier than his job should allow. Gay doesn't necessarily linger over the details of Breece's perversions (at least not at first), but the reader is meant to understand that this creep has overstepped the lines of criminal decency. The Tylers are alerted to his activities because they have recently lost their bootlegging father and they have espied Breece removing a precious article from his grave. Upon further investigation, they realize that the man is up to no good.

While one might be tempted to immediately blow the whistle on such a ghoul, sister Corrie see these circumstances as an opportunity for her and Kenneth to escape the poverty of their life, and get out of town. She would like to blackmail Breece, but needs proof of his wrongdoing. This comes in the form of polaroid shots of the undertaker abusing dead bodies in his workshop. Despite her brother's hesitancy, Corrie approaches Breece and demands fifteen thousand dollars for the return of the photos. Now Fenton Breece is a bit of a pampered aristocrat, but he doesn't relish being extorted by a teen-aged girl (especially one that he has lusted after in the past). So he hires the meanest cuss in town to get the photographs back.

Granville Sutter is a bad, bad dude from rotten stock. It's no secret that townspeople fear him, and Kenneth Tyler would like to give him a wide berth. Unfortunately Sutter has targeted the young man as the weak link, and believes that the threat of violence against the siblings will compel them to give up the game. Sutter doesn't necessarily approve of what Breece has been up to, nor does he really want to know any of the gory details. He just wants what's coming to him when he delivers the goods to Breece. And he's bound to employ any means to accomplish his mission. Not surprisingly, things turn ugly for the Tylers. Soon enough Kenneth finds himself on the lam, pursued by the maniacal Sutter.

Much of Twilight takes place in a vast tract of overgrown wilderness called the Harrikan. It is in this haunted terrain that Sutter attempts to overcome Kenneth Tyler, and the boy in turn encounters some truly archetypal Southern Gothic figures. Gay is able to make the Harrikan come alive with his efficient yet evocative description of flora and fauna. Interspersed within the woods are the abandoned detritutus of coal and other industrial operations that accentuate the sense that the characters are passing through a forbidden "no man's land". A feeling of impending doom accompanies the text, so that the reader is not sure what might happen next, but remains continuously aware that the possibilities are virtually endless.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Chuck Klosterman, "IV- A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas" (2006)

You have to be either extremely pretentious or tragically hip to bill your own book as containing "dangerous ideas" in the contemporary media environment. Chuck Klosterman certainly fits into the latter category. Throw him in the bundle of latter day pop culture critics that insist on injecting a self-conscious and irreverent post-modernism into their work. I'm under the impression that IV has been named to reference the number of books that the author has been successful in publishing previously. It's also apparently a shout-out to what Klosterman considers the genesis of the heavy metal rock genre- the Led Zeppelin album of the same name. That's a heady presumption for someone analyzing the state of modern music.

It's easy to make fun of a guy like Klosterman, who commits his rather formidable wit and imagination to topics as inane as Brittany Spears, classic rock tribute bands, and the movie Road House. In fact, a quick Google search will provide plenty of exposure to the vast pool of negative reaction to Klosterman's antics. But all of this should be taken in context. The periodicals that the Minnesota-native has written for have been an odd mix of mass market pap and respected establishment vehicles (GQ, Esquire, The Washington Post, Spin, The Believer, etc.). Sure, his attitude is decidedly populist, but that kind of approach is increasingly in vogue in this post-ironic environment.

That's not to say that Chuck Klosterman is without a certain degree of cynicism. He is perfectly capable of identifying the worst instincts of the American collective consciousness. Still he seems to be beholden to a Midwestern respect for the everyman. In one essay, he absolutely rejects the notion of a lightly-held "guilty pleasure". He points out that one may actually derive enjoyment from something morally unsound, but that's not what people mean by the term. Klosterman is stridently defensive about his tastes. He insists that his love for Billy Joel, KISS, and other bad hair metal bands is sincere. The last thing he would feel compelled to do is apologize for his preferences.

What you have to understand about this collection of essays is that Klosterman takes his subjects seriously, regardless of whether he is analyzing the contributions of a white basketball player, the significance of Johnny Carson, the lyrics of a British hip-hop artist, or a rock-and-roll cruise featuring the likes of REO Speedwagon, STYX, and Journey. If mass consumption disturbs you, it is likely that the themes throughout IV might leave you a bit cold. This is a guy who suggests that one of society's greatest needs is more substantial video game criticism, and he is convinced that anyone that fills that niche will be wealthy. But he'll also let you know that he doesn't necessarily have time for that.

It would be foolish to say that Klosterman's writing is devoid of compelling insight. Oftentimes he is provocative and original in his ideas. There may be a high level of superficiality, yet the spectrum of social commentary includes a wavelength for which he is ideally suited. And he is clever. One of the features of IV that I found interesting was the inclusion of inquiry-based introductions for each piece. In order to draw the reader into what may be a litany of observations about minutiae, Klosterman posits some "very big questions". An example: Would you rather be anonymous, or remembered for something completely peripheral to how you lived your life? It seems to me that Chuck Klosterman is hedging his bets.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

The Stimulus Package.

It's been weeks since I started thinking about the "stimulus package", and days since I considered writing about it. Yet what's kept me from attempting an exposition of my thoughts is the utter state of confusion that everybody is mired in regarding this prospective legislation. It's simply too big a subject. There may be individuals who claim to understand what it means, but I suspect that this "understanding" results more from ideology (or mere wishful thinking) than any clear perspective about the realities of the situation that necessitates it. My "spidey sense" is telling me that we are fucked beyond conception. Prophets have been foretelling this condition for decades, and so few have heeded their warnings.

I don't think that we can boil down our problems to a demi-glace of credit default and Wall Street shenanigans. The issues plaguing our economy have been sitting rank in the open air for longer than most are suggesting. Sure, our federal and state governments have been compounding the problems with willful ignorance and rampant corruption... but our citizenry must accept its share of responsibility. Ten trillion (+) dollars is an amazing number that lies beyond the reasonable comprehension of the human brain, but that amount is dwarfed by the amounts of personal debt that accumulate when we consider the personal debts of all Americans. And for this there is no easy excuse.

Who do we expect to lead us out of these dark borderlands? If people have built Barack Obama into a sort of messianic figure, it is only because of our desperate need for such a mythical creature. We've already played out that story. How many saviors can we create? Jesus Christ is said to have died for our spiritual sins, and those are certainly beyond quantification. That ambiguity is convenient for those that seek to offer us comfort. But we have created a standard of value for material things, and there will be no symbolic expiation available to clear our books. We are stuck with the prospect of a Day of Reckoning. The "infinite growth" of free market capitalism was a lie. We can't continue to fuel our economy on debt.

Still there is no doubt in my mind that we will try to spend our way out of our predicament, even if we have to pull the money out of thin air to achieve this. Like it or not, hyperinflation is the only answer. The main puzzle to sort out is how to distribute the paper. Shall we continue to put it in the hands of the institutions that have fomented our crisis? Wall Street, the banks, and the global corporate capitalists all ensured us of the viability of our system. They assumed the authority to guide the operation of our society, and they should face the most severe consequences of its failures. Most of us were given no choice to distinguish ourselves from the gamblers. The stakes were pre-determined at our birth.

When I hear the voices of those that have belatedly discovered "fiscal conservatism", my blood pressure rises and the muscles in my forehead spasm involuntarily. When Congressional "leaders" lament the prospect of increased taxes, I feel like puking. Everyone needs to realize that we've already spent our legacy. We've been profligate, and future generations will inevitably suffer from our wasteful ways. If we are going to "inject" more currency into our economy, we have a duty to invest it in such a way that our heirs will see some small benefit. It's time to go beyond considerations of our own comfort. We have earned the impending Depression. There's no avoiding it.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Pittsburgh Art Happenings: 2/6-7/09

Predictably, this first weekend of February is packed with openings after the typical January layoff. The feast or famine proposition is once again in full force... there's little chance that you are going to see everything, so take a miute or two to identify a couple priorities.


The first Friday of the month (almost) always brings Unblurred (on Penn Avenue between Garfield and Friendship), and as usual there is a lot to see. Your first stop should be Clay Penn (5111 PENN AVE), where Laura Jean has put together PRINTS N'AT, a collection of choice work by Bob LaBobgah, David Pohl, Bob Ziller and yours truly. I'm quite happy to be put together with these three distinguished artists, as they have many years of art-making experience between them. My contributions for the show constitute a photographic postmortem for the "American Dream". Stop by between 7 and 9PM.

Imagebox (4933 PENN AVE) is featuring the collages of Richard Schnap, in a show entitled "Strange Channels". If you've been a habitue of the local art scene for any length of time, you are already familiar with his work. Lauren Toohey entered the Pittsburgh consciousness relatively recently, but has been prolific in her output. She is presenting a steamy assortment of her paintings along with Elisabeth Scott under the title SEXUAL at Most Wanted Fine Art (5015 PENN AVE).

In recognition of Black History Month, Garfield Artworks (4931 PENN AVE) is offering "The Biko Museum Experience", as well as "Facemadics" by craftsman and artist Diamond Axe. I've seen Homewood resident Emory Biko's work at the Mattress Factory, and I recommend you take a breath or two before appreciating his hard-hitting social commentary. Meanwhile Ed Steck has some commentary of his own regarding the degradation of the American landscape. His reception for the METAL NJIGHT (4919 PENN AVE) series is at Modern Formations .

Due to my frequent attendance at Unblurred, I never make it over to Shadyside's monthly art walk. But I just might make the effort this time to see Thommy Conroy' solo of paintings over at Steve Mendelson's gallery (5874 Ellsworth Avenue, 6-8PM). Conroy used to be co-owner of the now defunct (but always spectacular) La Vie on Butler Street in Lawrenceville. There used to be a time when I saw him almost weekly, and I've often wondered how he's been spending his hours. This looks like the perfect opportunity to find out.

No doubt I'll end my art travels with a stop at Zombo Gallery for the opening of Adam Waddell's paintings. This guy is pretty brash. During last year's Art All Night he hung up a portrait of a smiling "Chinaman" accompanied by a "Rising Sun" flag. With this kind of geographical and cultural confusion as an example, I can only imagine what type of stuff his disordered mind can create. Good thing I don't have to speculate anymore.


Pittsburgh Center for the Arts has turned over all of their spaces, and the opening reception for the new exhibitions are this weekend (5:30-8:00PM). Patricia Bellan-Gillen's ZOO.Logic+ looks intriguing, with her "vast planes of vivid color and masterfully drafted animal imagery". I love all creatures... big, small, and painted. God only knows what the Society of Yoruba Beads will offer with their Transformations... and "generative processes" by Los Angeles-based C.E.B. Reas and Berlin-based Marius Watz sounds equally enigmatic. But everything will certainly be brought under the blinding light of infinite clarity at the Associated Artists of Pitsburgh show, which celebrated its organization's longevity by asking their members to come up with pieces inspired by the theme "99". Overwhelmed patrons can check out the ambiguously titled Video Retrospective, 1990-2009.

Panza Gallery (115 Sedgwick Street in Millvale) is featuring the work of U. of Pgh art grads Adrian Chin and Julian Betkowski. I'll get a preview of the work tonight, but readers of this blog will have to make due with the promotional image for the show. I know it sparks my interest. The opening reception is from 6-9PM.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

J.C. Hallman, "The Devil is a Gentleman" (2006).

Last year I reached my reading target in May, and by June I had consumed 50 books. I felt pretty certain that I would set a personal record with my annual total. However, I got complacent and limped along to the end of the year, largely neglecting anyone's written words but my own. Being largely a creature of habit, I have allowed that lack of forward momentum to infect this first month of 2009 as well. I intend to turn this around, and acknowledge that it is going to be hard work doing so. Falling out of the practice of daily reading has made me slow. It doesn't necessarily help that I've made a couple selections of rather dense material so far. One such title is J.C. Hallman's The Devil is a Gentleman.

The intellectual center of The Devil is a Gentleman is made up from observations the author made about the life and work of philosopher, psychologist and writer William James. This eminent scholar has been the focus of much study over the last century, and Hallman wisely forgoes an in depth analysis of his work. Instead he concentrates on presenting a skeleton account of James' life, along with a smattering of his more important ideas and thoughts. Ultimately Hallman is compelled most by the accounts of observations that James compiled in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). The fact that it's so hard to identify this great man's ultimate conclusions allows the reader to personally identify with various facets of his journey.

This ambiguity inspired Hallman's own personal quest of "seeking". Today's world presents just as many opportunities to study man's relationship with god as existed in the era of William James. If you scratch the surface, you will find no end to the strange assortment of approaches to spirituality lying just beneath society's orthodox veneer. Hallman travels to Southern California on a pilgrimage to the site of the Heaven's Gate suicides and tries to interview the neighbors. Finding a predictable resistance, he broadens his exploration of the area by visiting an extant UFO cargo cult. He thus establishes a baseline of weirdness for what follows throughout his book. The insights he constructs are often as fascinating as the individual tales he unearths.

In my opinion, one of Hallman's keys to success is found in his open minded attitude toward what many Americans would consider disturbing and confounding takes on faith. It's manifestly apparent that Hallman wanted to engage the objects of his study on their own terms. This strategy allows him a level of access that many writers would preclude due to their own preconceptions. Instead we get to be present alongside Hallman when he attends the bible study of a group of "Born Again" Christian professional wrestlers who seek to transform souls through their performances. He also participates in a Wiccan ritual and a Satanic "Black Mass". He even takes a Scientology Training course.

Alongside these perambulations (and those of William James), Hallman includes lots of contextual information and historical data about the religious groups he interacts with. The stories of the founders of many of these odd belief systems provide some of the most interesting higlights of The Devil is a Gentleman. Who knew that there was an Atheist community dedicated to the support of non-believers? For that matter, who imagined a group of neo-Pagans holding their convention in a casino? Ultimately though, the concise descriptions about Jamesian "Pragmatism" are likely to stick with me the longest. For years I've always considered the outcomes of belief more important than their rationalizations or origins. I just didn't realize that there was a name for that perpsective.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Right's Newfound Fear of Executive Orders.

If you still listen to conservative talk radio (despite its rapidly decreasing relevance in the American political scene), you've probably noticed that guys like Limbaugh, Hannity, and Savage are beside themselves in the wake of the Democratic takeover of the federal government. This is all easy to understand when you consider how far and how fast the GOP has fallen since the election of 2006. It's difficult to believe that the Republican Party had attained a complete consolidation of national power as recently as little more than three years ago. Things have definitely changed, and many pundits are having difficulty making the proper adjustments. That may be a shame for their followers, but it can also be quite entertaining.

One topic of intense consternation on the extreme Right is the presidential power of executive order. Obviously, while George W. Bush presided, uber-conservatives were only too happy to welcome his heavy-handed governance, and Cheney's construction of "the unitary executive". This approach made the Bush administration one of the most overreaching political bodies in modern American history. With the complicity of much of the media, Bush and company were able to reign almost completely unchallenged in Washington. And indeed, much of their agenda was prosecuted via executive order. Obviously this category of proclamation that carries the force of law is an important tool in the presidential arsenal.

Regardless of your interpretation of the legitimacy of Bush/Cheney, there can be no arguing that they fully embraced the concept of ruling by fiat. For a complete list of executive orders passed from 2001-08 (broken down by category), you can consult this site. If that math is correct, Dubya issued 284 executive orders during his eight years in office. He put out eight in the first month of his first term. Even more telling, he wrote five during his last working week as the president. Of course this accounting doesn't apply to the other directives and signing statements he made while occupying the Oval Office. For guys like Limbaugh, Savage and Hannity to bitch about Obama's activity so far is laughable.

Obama's critics are frothing at their collective mouth because they know he is a formidable leader who will actively work to undo a lot of the damage of his predecessor. It's especially amusing to see them try to hide their assaults under the banner of concern for the US Constitution. But when they hyperventilate about the "unprecedented" total of Obama's executive orders (I count five on the official White House site), they rarely if ever get into the details of their opposition. Do you have any idea what type of policy that Obama is trying to execute with his directives? You certainly don't if you listen to Conservative hack radio. They'd rather try to frighten with lies than enlighten with facts.

Let me provide a quick breakdown so far, Three of our President's executive orders fall under the banner of defense policy objectives. He is closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (1). He is setting up new standards and practices for the interrogation of detainees in US custody (2), and he is establishing a Special Interagency Task Force on Detainee Disposition (3). Furthermore he has sought to hold executive branch appointees to certain new ethical requirements (4) and established a policy to make Presidential records more accessible (5). Make a quick analysis of this list and tell me which of these E.O.'s present a danger to our rights under the US Constitution...

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Opening the Sixth Seal.

Perhaps you are aware that I am not a big football fan. This is a longstanding condition for me, and one that puts me at odds with the majority of Americans. Still it is not an essential discordance because (subjectively) I have a lot of opinions and preferences that nudge me well outside of the mainstream. So I likely wouldn't fixate on my avoidance of watching the NFL (and the college and high school equivalents) if I didn't live in Pittsburgh. Admitting that you don't care about the Steelers is like claiming you don't care about the availability of clean water. It's the kind of statement that invites a combination of disdain, disbelief, and/or outright confusion. I'm well used to it.

One might assume that such a position would be wholly inconvenient. But actually I have found it quite useful as a convenient excuse to screen people completely from my personal life. Whether or not there is common ground to be found elsewhere, our incompatibility is made quite obvious by my almost total lack of concern for the outcome of the preeminent Sunday sporting event. I use this like a defensive barrier, the way that others employ religion (or the lack of it) for similar reasons. I have become quite satisfied over the years with my lack of alignment with this group. It is only occasionally that it becomes any sort of social problem for me, and even in these cases a negotiation is quickly struck.

When the Steelers won the Super Bowl a few years ago, I was overwhelmed by a sense of disgust in humanity. I considered it personally offensive that Burghers would prioritize something that had so little real significance (at least to me). I didn't understand yet how indelibly the team's success was wrapped into the self-identity of its fan base, and (as an extension) the region. Like virtually everyone I have ever met, I'm sometimes willfully ignorant of others, and consumed with myself. I put myself above such "irrational" loyalties, and I suppose I even adopted a condescending attitude toward those that (to borrow a term from a good friend) bought into "the construct".

The truth is that I've come to reconsider my views. I haven't yet decided to actively participate in following this team... but I will admit to having rooted for the Steelers for the first time in my entire life. They represent something to many of my closest friends, and to shit on their love for the team seems flagrantly disrespectful. I want to see my city happy, and if this is what it takes... well then so be it. It doesn't hurt that I have a newfound esteem for individual members of the Rooney family, who unaccountably turned out to share my political leanings. I'll happily disclose that their relationship with Barack Obama over the past year has been something I've appreciated substantially.

When I told one Terrible Towel-wielding fanatic about my change-of heart vis-a-vis the Steeler Nation, he responded that my reason was perhaps the worst he had ever heard. Although I stand by the original justification, I decided that it might be time to expand my rationalizations. Here's what I came up with: each Super Bowl victory the Pittsburgh Steelers win earns them one ring. Each ring opens up another seal. I'm sure you can follow the logic from there. In the mythology of this region, one more victory (by the year 2012) will allow a transmutation of the consciousness along the Three Rivers. I see this in something other than apocalyptic terms. The playing field has been expanded infinitely.

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