Sunday, August 30, 2009

WTF?

It figures. No sooner do I lambaste John McCain and Orrin Hatch than I’m watching them spin yarns about Senator Edward Kennedy at his wake. And I am shocked.

Did you know John McCain could be LOL funny? I didn’t. Where was that McCain during the ’08 presidential campaign? (In my humble opinion, McCain paid for some really bad campaign advice last year.)

And then there’s Orrin Hatch. Did you know he had a warm and poignant setting?

Despite my cynical exterior, I’m a softie at heart. And Hatch’s reminiscence about the friendship that evolved between he and Kennedy (opposites if ever there were opposites) found me with a stupid smile on my face. It was disgusting.

Why was seeing these two ‘unplugged’ such a surprise? Because their public appearances are so tightly-scripted that they come to resemble one-dimensional cartoons. The real human being is boxed up for domestic use only.

It makes you wonder: in these divisive days, is this the extent to which congressional Democrats and Republicans also know each other?

I’m aware that John McCain and Orrin Hatch are very successful politicians, and that if they couldn’t evoke a laugh or a tear at a friend’s wake, they don’t belong in politics. That basically renders them incapable of selling ice-water in the Sahara.

But if it wasn’t before, politics has become a very carefully-choreographed stage show. And judging from this glimpse of actual human beings, and comparing it to what we will soon see again on and in our national media, it is one in dire need of fewer managers and spin-meisters, and more living, breathing, three-dimensional people.

Just a thought.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Just Wondering...

Senators McCain (R-AZ), Hatch (R-UT) and Gregg (R-NH) have recently made a point of marking the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy by issuing statements like “If only Senator Edward Kennedy were still here, we might get this health care thing passed.”

I can only assume they’re referring to the same Senator Edward Kennedy whose health care reform legislation they repeatedly voted against, because in my (admittedly) limited experience, I’m pretty sure there’s been just one Senator Edward Kennedy.

Of course, the fatal flaw in this line of thinking is that it doesn’t take into account life on other planets, which, judging from the Republican platforms established this summer, is likely where Republicans spend the majority of their time.

Guys? Save the crap for the base. OK?

And another thing. Why has no one asked Republicans that if big government is such a bad thing, why do they fight so hard to be a part of it? If it’s the root of all evil, why do they persist in participation?

I’d like to respectfully submit that if Republicans think government is too big, the best place to begin its downsizing is with the removal of all Republican representatives and senators. Imagine how streamlined, how efficient government would become.

Government in the hands of the Party of Know.

09/09/09

If you are any kind of music fan, you likely know what’s coming on that date: the release of newly-remastered editions of the thirteen original Beatles albums, plus a two-disc version of Past Masters, a remarkable collection of tracks released only as singles or on EPs.

When they were last remastered twenty-two years ago, Sgt. Pepper was just twenty years-old. Abbey Road but eighteen. That this is overdue is an understatement.

Even on release, those first generation remasters didn’t thrill anyone. The albums--especially the pre-Sgt. Pepper ones--sounded dry and brittle. The sound was shallow. This was hardly befitting of the most-celebrated rock band of all-time.

The two-volume Past Masters series was an improvement, and the three-volume Anthology series sounded like a Beatles compilation should have. But the original releases languished even long after enormous strides were made in analog-to-digital technology.

With their record label seemingly uninterested in improving the collection, fans took it upon themselves to apply digital technology to pristine vinyl copies of Beatles’ albums, essentially remastering the albums themselves.

Dr. Ebbetts, Fabulous Sound Labs, Blue Box and the folks at Purple Chick all produced amazing work, with the Purple Chick editions even landing a mention in Rolling Stone.

Unlike the underground versions, the new releases won’t contain bonus tracks, and will be using stereo mixes only. So if you’re hoping for the wallop that only mono can provide, or were hoping for demos or alternate takes, you might want to keep looking.

Keep in mind that Purple Chick editions were made by fans for fans, and are never, ever for sale. And that a mono box of the albums will be released, but that date and price have yet to be set.

The good news is that the use of limiters has been, well, limited. Limiting has become very popular in the past few years with the explosion of MP3 players. It reduces the sonic range of a recording to make it louder, and therefore seem “better” when played on an MP3 device.

I know I’m hopelessly literal, but wasn’t an extended dynamic range one of the big advantages of digital sound? Anyway, this means the new set of Beatles remasters has the potential to sound really, really good.

Remasters can inspire eye-widening wonder, or hand-in-hands disappointment. ABKCO finally got it right the second time around with its 2002 release of the Rolling Stones London-era catalog, which replaced remasters done so poorly that long-time fans couldn’t even recognize certain songs.

The music of the Beatles deserves only the best. Remasters that are as awe-inspiring as their music. Because when it comes to sound, few mastered it as well as those four guys from England.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Trouble with Siblings

Someone once said that while you can choose your friends, fate relieves us of that responsibility when it comes to siblings. They are assigned, like social security numbers, college roommates and eye color.

I was assigned three—two sisters and a brother. All of them are younger, which I suppose makes me the oldest. For the most part, I enjoy good relationships with them—except one. A sister. She and I have problems. Big problems.

My sister is a cornucopia of irritating personality traits. She loves the word ‘we’. She uses it to confer upon herself some kind of imaginary spokesman status, so when she issues one of her declarations, it isn’t just her opinion, but the shared conclusion of a group. This “coalition” is usually whatever family members, friends, relatives, etc. aren’t in the room.

My sister is also prone to exaggeration. No one is ever upset, they’re PISSED OFF! My sister is all capital letters and exclamation points. She is also a fire-starter. And she needs lots of attention, which probably goes a long way in explaining her other traits.

She likes nothing better than saying something outrageous and having every head in the room turn towards her.

The same person who refused to be her sister’s bridesmaid because it would entail the wearing of a dress (an act which would reduce her to a cultural stereotype) is the same person who endlessly criticizes me when my hair is long because I don’t, in her words, “look masculine and professional.”

Hmmm. Let me think about that one.

She spins like a campaign manager. She is a commitment phobe. And she is cheap cheap cheap cheap cheap. (And it’s not ornithology of which I speak.) It’s best to take her with a salt mine or two. And remember she needs to be filtered, translated and above all, managed. And it is exhausting.

Did I mention she is hyperactive with traces of OCD and ADD?

Like I said, we have problems.

When my parents sold our childhood home several years ago, I was unable to help with the move as I had recently lost a job and was working a temporary one which allowed no time off. Despite the gaggle of family, in-laws and professional movers, it was my sister’s opinion that my absence made the move three or four times as difficult as it needed to be. Upon returning home, she called me and vented. And vented. And vented. She used the word ‘we’. She exaggerated. She spun.

A bit shaken, I called home. Imagine my surprise when no one was even remotely irritated by my absence. I was now angry as well. I had seen this move coming. I had spent time on three earlier trips home helping my folks go through closets and crawlspaces and garage rafters, a claim my finger-pointing sister couldn’t make. I wrote her a long letter, with copies sent to my siblings to prevent exaggeration and spin and myth-making.

It stopped her in her tracks.

Then there was my move from New Mexico last fall. My sister volunteered to come down, ostensibly to help my girlfriend and I. That it also meant a free vacation and a free trip home were only convenient asides.

I was hesitant to accept, but an injury to my girlfriend’s lower-back precluded long stretches behind the wheel, and the discovery that there is absolutely no way one driver can operate three vehicles simultaneously were tough to ignore. With the voice of experience screaming “No! No! No!”, I accepted her offer.

We agreed that after arriving, she would first sightsee and then embark on a ten-day camping trip while my girlfriend and I finalized details of the move. My sister would return to help with packing, loading the truck and the drive eastward.

Wanting to make the leap of faith that might repair our fractured relationship, I loaned her my car for the camping trip. This despite knowing she and I view cars about as differently as it is possible for two people to view them.

For my sister, they are maintenance-free appliances which invariably become dented and scratched and are then discarded. I do silly things like change the oil and flush the radiator and never, ever park next to pick-up trucks and vehicles likely to contain great numbers of children and distracted parents.

With assurances that she would treat my car as I did, she set off for the Gila National Forest. I didn’t drive my car again until after arriving in Milwaukee. When I did, it was clear my car wasn’t in the same condition it was when it left New Mexico. The right front wheel pinged when I accelerated. The driver’s side window was off-track and didn’t close completely. And the rear bumper was covered with scratches.

This after she bailed-out early because the cross-country move wasn’t proving to be as fun as she thought it would be. Which is another thing about my sister; she can’t tolerate anything that isn’t fun. If it’s not a ride on a Tilt-a-whirl, sis has problems with it. For my part, I confess that leaving New Mexico just as the nation’s economy was having a melt-down didn’t have me doing cartwheels and handsprings.

But no fun? Me? Didn’t you read my last blog? OK—kidding.

Fast forward to August. My sister is visiting—again. I make an obligatory appearance. Like Obama and his fantasy of bipartisanship, hope springs eternal. (I am nothing if not the dutiful son/brother/employee.) There are lots of people there. I am thankful for this because they act as buffers which neutralize my sister. Later, after everyone else has gone, my immediate family asks me how I’m doing.

I tell them about the job market. I tell them applying for work is like playing the lottery, with odds that are only a little better. I tell them how I waited in line for an hour and-a-half to submit an application for a job as a supermarket cashier.

I don’t tell them about the part-time temporary job that would have me knocking on doors in the most-dangerous neighborhoods in Milwaukee (with a shiny new laptop in tow), doing follow-up interviews for a government study. I tell them it is ugly out there. U-G-L-Y.

My sister, whom I haven’t spoken to since December, asks me when I’ll be able to repay the $109.00 she mistakenly charged to her credit card during the move. (My girlfriend and I had agreed to pick-up her lodging and gas for the trip east.)

I tell her that was also the first question out of her mouth in December, and that nothing has changed. I again tell her that when I have money that isn’t needed for rent, utilities, gasoline and food, she will be paid. I ask when would be a good time to talk. She says there isn’t one. I say goodnight and leave.

The news that the $109.00 went to the repair of my car window will be met with derision and the kind of screeching only a personality like my sister's could create. The fact that I didn’t opt for the $500.00 dealership repair (which would mean she owed me money) but instead found a salvage yard with the appropriate regulator and had it installed for less than half that (which means I owe her ten-dollars and change) will be completely ignored.

My sister has adopted the belief that we are responsible for everything that happens to us. There are no accidents. No misfortune. No bad luck. Only good and bad choices. She sees other people’s lives in perfect hindsight, and freely dispenses what the work world calls “feedback”.

She doesn’t know it, but she would adore ‘The Secret’. She’d likely set it cover-out on a high shelf, and light votive candles on either side of it.

And I have come to agree with her. It is about good and bad choices. And at long last, I understand that continuing this relationship is a very bad choice.

Our relationship requires vast amounts of effort with only brittle co-existence to show for it. It’s sad and it hurts, but what is, is.

Yeah, it’s all about the choices.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Playing Politics (a.k.a. The Art of War)

It pains me to write this, but Democrats just don’t get it. The party that wants to fight for human rights can't even make a fist.

They tote poetry to a street brawl. Confuse politics with picnics. And who could ever forget John Kerry answering the outrageous accusations of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth with silence?

While health care lobbyists mobilize the most-freakish elements in the conservative base to recreate The Jerry Springer Show at Democrat-led town hall meetings, Barack Obama and Harry Reid continue to speak of their jaw-dropping desire to include Republicans in the drafting of health care reform.

Are they masochists who secretly enjoy being humiliated? Are they prepping for a dramatic turn as battered spouses? What?

However lacking Republicans are in leadership and ideas, they are expert manipulators. They skillfully exploit humanity’s worst fears and unerringly find our lowest common denominator hot button. Republicans could turn a monastery of Buddhist monks into a howling, finger-pointing mob.

They know how to appear as an unwavering wall of unity. They know how to follow each other to the nearest TV camera and parrot party policy.

These abilities have awarded them the White House for seventy-five percent of the past forty years, and given them political leverage when most of us thought they would be relegated to curiosity status.

If you’re unfortunate enough to be a Democrat, your elected representation is spine-free, and more concerned with appeasing knee-jerk contrarians than implementing thoughtful and inclusive policy. And if not that, they’re closet Republicans who only ran as Democrats to escape the long, dark shadow of the Bush administration.

A lumber yard after an F5 tornado isn’t as splintered as our current group of congressional Democrats. They are the answer to the question ‘When is a majority not a majority?’

I think it was Will Rogers who said “I am not a member of any organized political party—I am a Democrat.”

And then there’s us. We the feeble. If not our homes, we Americans at least inhabit healthy egos. We are the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, the smartest and the richest. We know so because we are told so.

After all, this is America, isn’t it?

But countries all over the globe surpass us in life expectancy, infant mortality, per-capita income and education, not to mention access and quality of health care. To be kind, we are Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. We are a delusional populace clinging to a nation that exists only in our minds.

Ironically, it is Republicans—and only Republicans--who benefit from their dismal record on education. It's no secret that the least-educated are the most-malleable. And only the uneducated would gulp the swill health care toadies are dishing out: death panels and socialism and publicly-funded abortions, oh my!

The best thing we can do is to do nothing. And be afraid. Very afraid.

Personally, I’m just relieved that more of us don’t protest. Don’t contact our elected representation to demand explanations for their actions.

We are too busy copying the license plate number of the man who smiled at our toddler in the park to bother finding out what our congressmen are doing with our money and our country. That would get in the way of doing what we do best, which is prove P.T. Barnum correct.

Health care reform is very, very serious stuff. Which is why Washington DC sports six health care lobbyists for every U.S. congressman. It is why health care is shoveling money at this crazy talk about reform like a coal man in a nineteenth-century locomotive.

The ten-largest health care insurers have seen their profits rise 428% since the year 2000, which is even higher than the rise in medical-related bankruptcies and foreclosures.

Like I said, serious stuff. No wonder the Republican noise machine is cranked up to eleven.

One party wants only to keep the wealthy wealthy and the powerful powerful. The other can't agree on the day of the week.

That leaves us. Uncontained health care costs are a threat to everyone, be they black, white, female, male, rich, poor, gay or straight. We need to make clear to our representation that we want and need a public option with our health care, and that we’re watching.

We mustn’t confuse the world's most-profitable health care with the world's most-effective.

If we do, grandma won’t be the only one in danger of being unplugged.