Monday, December 27, 2010

I Am a Music Magnet

I have more records than Guinness. More CDs than Citibank. And more cassettes than even a third world flea market could ever hope to unload.

I’m a radio station waiting to happen. My girlfriend has threatened—on more than one occasion—to make my embarrassment of musical riches public on Hoarders: Buried Alive.

This is only because Intervention is off the air.

How did this happen? How did a generally neat and organized person like myself end up with a sprawling, immovable mass of record albums, compact discs and cassettes? After weeks of careful and considered scientific investigation, I have come to this conclusion: It’s grandma’s fault.

Grandma was the silver-haired enabler who placed the gateway drug of a transistor radio into my innocent, eight-year-old hands one Christmas. Two summers earlier, it was through her well-intentioned, grandmotherly largesse that I received the first of my long-playing phonograph albums, the soundtrack to A Hard Day’s Night.

A deliberate pattern of exposure and indulgence had been set. It should be obvious that with adult influences like these, I didn’t stand a chance. I was at risk. It wasn’t long before I was displaying the behavior of a musiholic.

I knew the weekly Top Ten like my classmates knew their multiplication tables. I was in the world’s most hard-to-iron shirt (my mother’s words) the second it was out of the dryer because it resembled one George Harrison wore on the cover of Beatles VI.

I memorized song lyrics with a facile ease I could never locate when it came to committing Bible passages to memory for Sunday school. I organized primitive karaoke and air guitar sessions with fellow obsessives in the neighborhood, lip-syncing to Beatles’ albums as we played our "guitars".

This soon evolved to actual singing and the strumming of wooden planks, on which we had drawn tuning pegs, strings, pickups and volume knobs with magic marker.

In the parlance of the day, I was a scream. Little wonder my parents so rarely sought entertainment outside the home. And come to think of it, where’s my check from Rock Band?

Then there was the radio. The plastic Pandora’s Box that was to complete my undoing. It measured roughly seven inches by four, and if memory serves, was made by Crown.

It was in the slightly-garish style of early-Japanese electronics, with a cream-colored body, red accents and lots of fake gold trim. The click that sounded when I thumbed the volume dial was practically a prison door springing open.

WCFL and WLS were conduits for the electrical charge of Beatles’ harmonies, the fuzz-toned defiance of Rolling Stones’ riffs and the ache of Levi Stubbs’ vocals. I couldn't get enough. Unbeknownst to her, grandma had provided me with 24/7 access to my favorite drug.

Despite the rampant overstimulation of my tiny physiology, I could and did grow tired. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, In the Midnight Hour and Ticket to Ride were my usual lullabies. If not quite borne on the wings of angels, I drifted off to sleep to a honking horn section and James Jamerson’s bass kicking-off the latest Motown smash.

I also went through batteries like John Mayer does girlfriends.

There’s a line from a song which says “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.” And for better or worse, that is a perfect description of my formative years.

While I struggled with the complexities of math, science and grammar, I effortlessly came to understand the myriad of influences that shaped the music I love. If the definition of passion is what we devote ourselves to without thought of remuneration, then this was, and is, mine.

Best of all, I now understand I am not a hoarder. I'm an archivist.

Hear that, honey?

Friday, December 24, 2010


I recently opened the stats function in Blogspot, and was astonished to find that a thousand of you from 14 different countries have visited this blog.

I can't imagine what I have to say that merits such attention, but I am honored by it. I hope somewhere down the line you have found a kindrid voice.

Or been semi-amused.

Or at least found a blog that successfully hides the Internet porn you're looking at from a spouse or boss.

If you'll excuse me now, I must climb the cliche tree, go too far out on a limb and hope desperately for understanding, unselfishness and leadership worthy of the name.

Merry Christmas to all of you. And a very happy new year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


I was at K-Mart yesterday. Namely, it was to purchase a boot tray. Despite the $4.49 price tag, it is priceless when it comes to storing big, wet winter boots.

Once I had secured said tray, I headed towards the registers. That’s when I encountered the most jaw-dropping Christmas gift of the year: the camouflage Snuggie.

I ask you—is there a better example of conflicted? I mean, where do you even begin? Declaring your masculinity from underneath a Snuggie? Are you serious?

Marketing-types should know there are places where camouflage just doesn’t work: Smart cars. Taylor Swift albums. Eat Pray Love. And Snuggies.

Convincing the world you’re an alpha-male from beneath a Snuggie is Michael Buble pretending he's Fifty Cent.

Ours is a culture of intimidation. Confrontation. Which is why we embrace reality TV and enormous SUVs and threat-spewing conservatives. And if you want to wear camo, fine.

But do it right. Drive a big, black pick-up. Shave your head. And don't forget the sunglasses and Oakland Raiders T.

But a camouflage Snuggie? There isn't a calculator in the world that can make that add up.

On the other hand, you could always hope no one sees you. Which, come to think of it, was the original purpose of camouflage.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Confronting Confrontation

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, Barack Obama is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Given a mandate by an electorate fed-up with eight years of Republican policies, Obama seemed poised to lead America into a fresh, new era. Factoring in a Democratic-controlled Congress, the promise of January 20, 2009 seemed infinite.

But a funny thing happened. The electorate that thought it was getting a president committed to righting the wrongs of the Bush administration instead got a president routinely unable to corral congressional Democrats and get them on the same page to enact desperately-needed legislation.

A president who, despite being repeatedly subjected to the most-obnoxious elements of the conservative noise machine, attempted only to appease it.

We thought we were voting for the voice of change in November of 2008. It turns out we were voting for at-any-and-all-costs bipartisanship. In doing so, Obama has consistently snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

As a slight, bookish boy not given to athletics, I was overly familiar with bullies.

This came to a head one day as I was returning to school after lunch. I encountered Billy Smith on the sledding hill near my home, and for whatever reason, Billy was in a foul mood. He believed that giving me a beating would right all the wrong in his world.

I attempted to ignore him, gamely continuing on. But Billy would not be denied. And when he landed a punch to my face, I became enraged. I kicked and punched with a fury unknown to me. And as the fight moved to the steep slope at the rear of the hill, I saw my opportunity and pushed him down it.

It gave me great satisfaction to see him tumbling. To see him get scratched and bruised by the cement-like clumps of earth. And when he reached bottom, I heard a strange and unexpected sound—Billy the Bully was crying. I gathered my books and continued to school.

I felt empowered in a way I never had before.

Billy never touched me again, and even made an awkward attempt at friendship. But the enduring lesson I took from that day was that there is a small group of people who respect and understand just one thing: force.

It is sad. And it is unfortunate. But it is true.

It is also something Barack Obama will never understand.

In his news conference responding to criticism over a deal he cut with Republicans, Obama defended the compromise by saying that he couldn’t have working-class Americans held hostage by Republican threats.

What he doesn’t get is that by repeatedly kowtowing to the bully, he extends and entrenches the bullying. And consequently, the desperate state of the country he is entrusted to lead.

Mr. President, it's time to push Billy Smith down the hill.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ditto (A Post about Cover Versions)

Someone hears a song. They love it so much they have to record it. They hear an opportunity in the melody, the arrangement or the lyrics and voila! The song is reinvented. Recast. Reimagined.

The funny part comes when it bests the original.

One example is the Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On, a tidy, two-minute Motown single turned into a blazing, late-sixties epic of romantic torment by the Vanilla Fudge in a way the songwriters probably never could have imagined.

The opposite (and more popular) approach also works; taking a “big” song and stripping it down to its essence: lyrics and melody.

The most-famous cover version might be Whole Lotta Love. Did you know the Led Zeppelin chestnut is a retitled cop of Muddy Waters’ You Need Love?

While the theremin break is all Zeppelin’s, the song that virtually defines heavy metal comes courtesy of Mr. McKinley Morganfield, born in rural Mississippi years before World War I began.

In the weeks I spent compiling these, three things became clear: 1.) There are a couple of inspired Beatles’ covers. 2.) Rod Stewart is my favorite interpreter of other people’s songs. And 3.) No one has successfully covered the Rolling Stones.

It’s hard to hear a Beatles’ cover on its own, since the originals are all but indelible. It’s like watching a remake of your favorite film. You’re constantly comparing the casting, the script and the look to the original.

But Joe Cocker and Spooky Tooth pulled it off.

To a generation of Boomers, Rod Stewart stands as the example of talent tossed away. After a quartet of albums that brilliantly melded folk, soul and buoyant rock, he dissolved into a cartoonish stereotype.

But let’s give the man his due. From the late-sixties through the mid-seventies, there wasn’t a finer interpreter of the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke or the Temptations on the planet.

Finally, I love the Rolling Stones. Few bands sound as singular. And while there are tons of Stones’ covers, none is very memorable. (Cobra Verde’s Play with Fire is probably best.)

Is this proof of their uniqueness, or the ultimate example of fan bias?

That said, here are my ten favorite covers, plus five I felt guilty about leaving off.

1. Piece of My Heart Janis Joplin
Erma Franklin (yes, that Franklin) cut the formidable original. But hearing Joplin lance the boil of her heartbreak on this 1968 edition makes the hair on my arms stand up. Nearly every female singer who has followed is in its debt.

2. Gloria The Shadows of Knight
It takes a fair bit of inspiration to make Van Morrison (who wrote and recorded the original) sound mannered and remote. But for two minutes and thirty-four seconds, this Arlington Heights, IL. garage band did exactly that.

3. House of the Rising Sun The Animals
Like Stagger Lee, this song has a long and storied past. And despite the countless alliterations, there is only one that matters. This simmers like foreplay before finally boiling over in a churchy swell of organ and Eric Burdon’s anguish. Awesome.

4. Respect Aretha Franklin
This song found its center when Franklin recorded it from a woman’s perspective. And it works on both a personal and a societal level. Despite the prodigious talents of the songwriter (Otis Redding), Aretha’s take crackles with a finger-wagging sass the original barely hinted at.

5. With a Little Help from My Friends Joe Cocker
This Beatles song was buried in the middle of Sgt. Pepper, given to Ringo to imbue with his hangdog charm. Cocker recasts it on his debut, turning a modest ode to friendship into a surging, majestic anthem of survival.

6. Nothing Compares 2 U Sinead O’Connor
For a time, Sinead O’Connor could do no wrong. Here, she takes a Prince giveaway and pours herself into the loneliness and hurt of love freshly lost. And the arrangement frames O'Connor's voice to sublime perfection.

7. (I Know) I’m Losing You Rod Stewart
This jewel comes from the Every Picture Tells a Story album, and is a shining example of how Motown can rock. A critic once wrote that Mickey Waller's drumming deserved the Nobel Prize in Physics. He wasn't lying.

8. What Was It You Wanted Willie Nelson
This Dylan tune from 1989’s Oh Mercy is given a haunting, minor key treatment that emphasizes its searching, unsettled lyric. Fred Tackett’s picking on the outro is just a bonus.

9. You Really Got a Hold on Me The Beatles
Among their many talents, the Beatles were pretty fair cover artists. John Lennon takes this 1962 Miracles’ hit and gives it a soulful reading that obliterates the original. Which is something not many people did to Smokey Robinson.

10. Girl from the North Country Secret Machines
This song always seemed more barren and windswept than Dylan presented it on John Wesley Harding. Secret Machines obviously felt the same, issuing this stark, synth-based rendition on their The Road Leads Where It’s Led EP.

Urge for Going -Tom Rush
He Was Really Saying Somethin’ -Bananarama
(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love & Understanding -Elvis Costello
Baby It’s You -Smith
Superstar -Sonic Youth

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Counter Culture, Pt. 2

You have manned the take-away register seven days out of the last eight. Co-workers greet you with comments of the “What did you do?” variety.

The register is awkward, being positioned on a postage stamp-sized cart with an acute shortage of space for groceries. Never mind the cell phones, purses, babies, water bottles and key rings shoppers have with them.

This is likely the reason for the ‘6 Items or Less’ sign. Thankfully, most of your customers can read. (But more about that later.)

There is even less room for maneuvering flimsy styrofoam containers overfilled with sauces, dressings and gravies into plastic bags mounted on a rack only slightly more stable than Lindsay Lohan.

When pulled, the bags are supposed to tear along a perforation, much like a sheet of paper from a pad. But then, the Great Recession supposedly ended in June of 2009, too.

Then there is the change cup. By the time a customer is standing at the register paying for their groceries, it is actually positioned behind them.

So during the lunch hour, the line of customers is continually performing a polite but poorly-choreographed samba as they move backwards, and then forwards, to accommodate customers retrieving their change.

You wonder if this could be parlayed into a slot judging contestants on Dancing with the Stars. If not, you still retain one measure of celebrity, because the register is located in the store manager’s favorite area of the supermarket.

This means that when it’s 9:45 AM and there isn’t a long line of customers waiting to purchase BBQ, soup or salad at your register, you become visible in a manner desired only by unknown actors, writers and musicians.

You proffer reasoned arguments that your position is an on-demand one; that standing around is your job. They fall on deaf ears. The fact that it isn’t the lunch hour is never an excuse for it not being the lunch hour.

The area's track lighting is specifically arrayed to reflect off the stainless steel counter and into your eyes. Customers have observed that the resulting squint gives you an uncanny resemblance to Sergio Leone–era Clint Eastwood, especially when you don’t shave.

You are crestfallen when you learn that ponchos, cigars and black cowboy hats are prohibited by the store’s dress code.

In addition to the revolving door, there is also a traditional one store architects thoughtfully placed near the register. Due to their exhaustive studies of prevailing wind conditions, it allows maximum blasts of icy, Arctic air into the workspace.

Locking the door activates a silent alarm in the manager's Blackberry. Or at least seems to. Technically, there is a wall-mounted space heater near the door. But only in the same sense that technically, you are no longer unemployed.

So yes, employees clamor to work here.

Strange things happen. Like the time you are summoned to the main registers to cover for several late-arriving employees. You shut-off your light, flip the sign to ‘Closed’ and head to the front of the store.

When you return some twenty minutes later, there are several people waiting at the register. You didn’t know ‘closed’ also meant ‘wait’. You are gobsmacked.

The knock-out punch arrives courtesy of the woman at the front of the line, who says “You were open when I came in here.” You choke back several less-considered responses before telling her you're sorry, but you had to help out in another part of the store. She repeats herself before snatching her bag and storming off.

The sixty-ish man behind her is irritated also. “You could’ve told someone how long you’d be gone so people didn’t wait around all day.”

He slaps a ten-dollar bill on the counter. You look for Ashton Kutcher. This is an episode of Punked.

You desire fervently to tell him that your ESP is in the shop for its 60,000-mile check-up, thereby inhibiting your ability to predict the future. But you wear a name tag, and despite the abundant evidence to the contrary, this man may know how to read.

Instead, you tell him you’re sorry. He is unmoved.

You hand him his bags without saying “The door is straight ahead. And unlike my register, it’s open.” This is a small-but-important victory.

As is resisting the powerful and insistent urge to quit.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Milk of Human Kindness

If not love, a human being’s greatest character trait is kindness.

Our potential for it is practically unlimited. It changes lives. Its residual warmth outlasts the act itself. We never forget an unexpected display of it.

I was the recipient of such many years ago. I was seventeen, and rushing to my summer job on a bicycle along a two-lane road with a gravel shoulder. Being a little late, I stood up to pedal. The next thing I remember was losing my balance and beginning to fall.

This because the right-side pedal had sheared off where it is attached to the sprocket.

The fall knocked me out cold. I must have laid there for some time, because when I regained consciousness there was a line of ten to fifteen cars idled behind me. My bicycle lay partly in the road. I stood up, gathered my things and began to walk home.

Car after car crawled by me. I finally realized that I must look a mess. I put my hand to my face and it returned coated with red gravel. My right arm and shoulder were numb.

“Are you okay?” A young-ish woman in a VW van had pulled off on the shoulder behind me. I turned around, still a little dazed.

“Yeah.” (What seventeen year-old guy needs anyone’s help?)

“You don’t look so good. Want a lift home?”

I sheepishly wheeled my bike to her van. She helped me stow the bike and asked where I lived.

I directed her to my home, which was only a few minutes away. There, we lifted the bike out. The doorbell went unanswered, but since the garage door was open I figured mom was likely in the backyard with my little sister.

She was, talking with a neighbor over the fence. I’ll never forget my neighbor’s horrified expression when I appeared bloodied with twisted glasses and a broken bicycle.

“Oh my god!” My mother rushed to me.

The woman explained how she had come across me, and offered us a ride to the hospital.

I was fortunate. No broken noses, orbitals, or concussions. No dislocated shoulders or broken collarbones. Just some abrasions, a bloody nose, a black eye and an ugly gash across my cheek, closed with a row of stitches.

The remarkable woman stayed with us the entire time. She refused to divulge her name or where she worked, saying only that she was a mom and wanted to help. She was on her lunch hour, and joked that she would have a great excuse for being late.

I impulsively hugged her when we arrived home, as did my mother. We were deeply grateful. The woman said goodbye, climbed into her van and drove away.

A few days later, I was reading Dear Abby in the newspaper. Her column that day contained a definition of grace, something to the effect that it is a kindness offered with no expectation of repayment.

The world has changed a great deal since then. There are no accidents. Only liability and blame.

Today, my parents would sue the bike manufacturer. I’d be taken to the hospital in an ambulance summoned by a stranger with a cell phone. I never would have encountered this woman, nor been touched by her.

I think of her often, and hope the kindness she showed me has been repaid many time over. She is a role model and a hero, but doubt she has ever referred to herself as such. In a small but important way, she was a teacher that day.

Wherever and whoever you are, thank you. Thank you so very much.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Eau de Conservative

The putrid soul of conservative hypocrisy is alive and well in the person of Andy Harris, a freshman congressman recently elected to the House from the state of Maryland.

As an arch conservative running on a platform of reduced spending and the repealing of ‘Obamacare’, it's worth noting his reaction to the news that his government-sponsored healthcare wouldn’t begin until twenty-eight days after being sworn-in January 3rd.

Andy had a hissy fit.

“This is the only employer I’ve ever worked for where you don’t get coverage the first day you are employed!” cried Andy. "What am I going to do without healthcare for twenty-eight days? Why the hold up?"

Of course, as an anesthesiologist, our little Andy would have a very good idea just how quickly medical costs can go from zero to crippling.

So while Dr. Andy frets about how he’s going to survive four weeks without healthcare coverage, remember that government-sponsored healthcare is the first step on the road to socialist ruin when it’s for you, but that his can’t start soon-enough.

Remember, too, that it is liberals who are the ‘elites’, and not everyday folk like Dr. Andy, who have never had to wait out a ninety-day probation period for their healthcare coverage to begin and who enjoy a median salary of 314K.

Do the bovine herds who voted for Republicans in the recent midterms have even the most nebulous whiff of a clue just what—and who—they’ve enabled? Isn’t reinstating the party responsible for the current state of our union akin to trying to cure lung cancer with cigarettes?

Maybe literacy tests aren’t such a bad idea, after all.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Bootleg

Bootlegs have always occupied a unique niche in the music world. Fans craved them. Record companies despised them. Their late-sixties, underground origins appealed to fans of a music which was far outside the mainstream.

We hear rock music everywhere nowadays. But you didn’t stand a chance of hearing Cat Stevens, much less Cream, when you turned on a TV, stepped in an elevator or went to the supermarket in 1970.

And what better way to show your contempt for The Man than to buy a record that completely bypassed established business channels?

Many bootlegs became legendary. Liver Than You’ll Ever Be, an audience recording of a 1969 Rolling Stones show in Oakland, was one. The Great White Wonder, a collection of studio recordings made by Bob Dylan after his supposed motorcycle crash in 1966 was another.

It's possible Liver Than You'll Ever Be provoked the officially-released Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! in an attempt to re-direct the revenue going to Liver back into record company (and band) pockets. Conveniently, it just happened to be a pretty good live album as well.

The Great White Wonder brought a wealth of unpublished Dylan songs to the public at a time when his profile was low, and probably did more to keep his name in front of his audience than either Dylan or his record company would care to admit. 

Ironically, bootlegs became so popular record companies attempted to capitalize on the buzz, as was the case with Nils Lofgren’s live album. And record labels for Tom Petty and John Hiatt even issued promotional live albums which mimicked bootleg's cover art.

Aerosmith went them one better and named their 1978 live LP Live! Bootleg, complete with inaccurate track listing. Someone was paying attention.

And while bootlegs didn’t technically represent copyright violations, record companies viewed them as an infringement—at least when they weren’t inspiring marketing ploys.

In record company eyes, fans wanting to purchase the version of “Stairway to Heaven” they heard on the radio would confuse Live on Blueberry Hill for Led Zeppelin IV, and being disappointed at the quality of the recording, would never buy another Led Zeppelin album again.

Of course, the reality was quite different. Fans (which we need to remember is short for fanatic) who purchased Live on Blueberry Hill already owned Led Zeppelin IV.

What record companies hadn’t yet realized was that consumers of bootlegs were insatiable. They possessed every Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones album and wanted more.

Musicians were more ambivalent. They recognized the offhand tribute bootlegs represented. On a 1978 tour stop in Los Angeles, Bruce Springsteen even began a concert broadcast with the greeting “Bootleggers! Roll your tapes!”

Being bootlegged had become a status symbol. People weren’t risking arrest to capture an Olivia Newton-John show on tape. It was Neil Young. The Who. And Pink Floyd. Big-time heavyweights who inspired intense passion in their fans.

But bootlegging wasn’t anything new. As far back as the late-nineteen-forties, jazz fans were covertly recording Charlie Parker gigs, and in perhaps the ultimate tribute ever accorded a musician, transferred only his solos to 78s and LPs.

But the profit motive always muddied the water. Fans were gouged by unscrupulous folk who didn’t always deliver on their promise. I’ll never forget the bootleg cassette I bought which presumably contained a concert of a favorite band of mine.

After discovering it contained only three poorly-recorded songs and part of a fourth, I was miffed. But what was I going to do? Call the Better Business Bureau? The Attorney General? The police?

This is where the computer comes in. If digital technology hasn’t completely legitimized the bootleg, it’s at least taken them from shadowy gas station parking lots to the bright light of the Internet.

Fans can upload a show and share it with other fans free of charge. No dodgy-type dudes selling stuff out of their trunks, or having to be privy to which stores are selling. It’s by fans for fans—which is how it should have been from the beginning. A complete delete of the profit component.

And bootlegs sound so much better, too. Concert recording has evolved from holding a hand-held mic connected to a portable cassette tape recorder to digital devices which intercept IEM signals.

Many bands actually accommodate tapers, correctly figuring it’s another avenue to get the word out. My Morning Jacket, the Drive-By Truckers and Gomez are just a few of the bands following in the Grateful Dead’s footsteps.

Concerts are special events; they place you at the point of creation, not unlike the big bang that created the universe. Hearing a special band on a hot night without the filter of commerce is a thrilling and wonderful thing.

Bootlegs are honest and genuine in a way a commercial release could never be. You’d be shocked at the amount of studio sweetening (called overdubbing) that goes into a typical live album.

Just as acidic vineyard soil produces the sweetest grape, a bootleg’s less-than-pristine sound quality can actually deepen the listening experience. You have to listen “harder”. You have to meet a bootleg halfway.

It's a medium that prizes performance, not production. All of this can make for a demanding, but rewarding, listen.

Ascoltare felice!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Wedding Story

I read a blog recently that examined party invitations. Specifically, wedding and baby shower invitations, and how many are little more than attempts to extract the largest amount of cash and/or gifts possible from their guests.

I can practically see the hosts hunched over spreadsheets as they assemble profit and loss statements, comparing outlay versus intake. “Don’t forget to factor in the napkins!” cries one. “They work out to eight cents per!”

It made me recall my own wedding experiences. One in particular stood out, as it was ahead of the curve in its use-the-guests mentality.

It was November of 1990. I was happily employed as a field rep for a book publisher. I also had a part-time job working Saturdays in a record store.

It was Friday, and I hurriedly completed that day’s appointments in the far-south suburbs of Chicago, raced to my home on the northwest side, showered, shaved and dressed for that night’s rehearsal dinner.

Somehow, I also managed to pick-up my tux and the wedding gift.

I set-off, eager for a night of socializing.

The groom was a basketball buddy of mine. He had asked me to stand up, and I accepted. Jim had a nice three-point shot and was generally likable even if he had a frugal streak.

A favorite ploy of his was to order an expensive appetizer and imported beer, and when the check came, announce “I have a dollar.” After subsidizing Jim’s post-game libations two or three times, the rest of us came to appreciate the beauty of separate checks.

Looking back, that should have been a clue.

The wedding rehearsal was filled with good-natured humor and camaraderie. Afterwards, we moved on to the restaurant. After a fine dinner, I was approached by the couple to-be and asked if I would tend bar at the reception.

The only other occasion in life that found me similarly speechless was the time I was asked out by Naomi Watts and Diane Lane on the same day. (But that’s another blog for another day.)

My mind raced as the bride and groom explained they were trying to keep costs down, and that they thought I would be a “really good” bartender. Part of me thought they were kidding. I mumbled something like “Only if the wine has twist-off caps.”

When I realized they weren’t, I begged off, citing my inexperience at public bartending.

Meanwhile, the other part of me (my inner wedding guest) was screaming. “I took an unpaid day off of work! Rented a tuxedo! And bought you a freaking wedding present! And now you want me to work at your wedding?”

Of course, had I known the reception was going to be held in the event room of the bride’s apartment complex, and that bartending meant dispensing cans of soda, I might have said yes.

Which was another unusual aspect of this wedding.

Despite the bride’s father being a doctor, the groom’s a successful businessman, and the bride being a physical therapist and the groom the manager of his employer’s shipping and receiving department, the reception consisted of supermarket cold cut trays, potato chips and soda.

In an apartment complex event room.

Let me first make clear the fact that I am unequivocally opposed to obnoxious and extravagant showcase weddings. But this was at the other end of the scale.

This wasn’t a wedding hosted by impoverished folk. These were people with careers. And paychecks. And their guests didn’t even rate a can of Bud with their dried-out chicken breast and soggy vegetable medley?

Making matters worse was that the location of the reception had been kept a secret until the day of the wedding. Guests were told it was a “surprise”, and I certainly won’t argue that.

But I couldn’t escape the feeling I’d been had. Much like after those post-game get-togethers.

You might be tempted to say this story takes the cake. But with hosts like these, there was no way that was going to happen.

It was padlocked to the table.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Poised to Panic

If you’re an observer of the American landscape, you probably know that Proposition 19 failed in California. If you aren’t, Proposition 19 sought to legalize marijuana, thereby allowing its legal cultivation, distribution and sale.

But what interests me isn’t whether it passed of failed, but how it failed.

Borrowing a page from the conservative playbook, the opposition employed the panic strategy. Television ads featured stoned school bus drivers and nurses showing up to work with employers helpless to do anything about it!

Wow. That hits all the right panic buttons, doesn’t it? Children at risk, intoxicated nurses and employers rendered mute by (gasp) big government.

And people bought it. As usual, the reality is one-hundred-eighty degrees removed from these Chicken Little, the-sky-is-falling scenarios.

The image of employers forced to watch helplessly as their drug-addled employees wreck havoc in the workplace belongs on Saturday Night Live, not in considered political debate.

Have any of the voters swayed by this argument ever looked at their employee handbook? The truth is that owing to ‘at will’ employment, employers can pretty much fire you for anything: Your socks don’t match. Ravioli is spelled with one ‘l’. It’s Thursday.

So. How did voters connect this argument to reality? The fact is, they didn’t. They reacted to it. With abject, unthinking, underwear-soiling fear.

We’ve seen this before. Most notably in the 2004 presidential election, in which Republicans convinced housewives that Muslim terrorists were everywhere, just waiting for an opportune moment to send aircraft plowing into cul-de-sacs from Tacoma to Tallahassee.

From weather bulletins bordering on hysteria to amber alerts, we are a society perpetually on the edge of panic. Overloaded and over-stimulated by media and communications, we are ideal targets for button pushing (and button pushers.)

I wonder what it will make us vote for next.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Vote (Please)

I’m pissed, too. I’ve been kicked to the curb. Thrown under the bus. I’m not even sure I have a future. I’m told that financial experts expect employment to return to 2007 levels by 2014.

In my position, four years might as well be a hundred. If my job gap is offensive to employers now, what will it smell like in four more years? Flowers?

So yeah, I’m angry. Furious. Outraged. I want to kick and scream and yell. At my worst, I want to stomp on those who created this recession until their craniums are a reddish mess the consistency of porridge.

But however deep my rage, I’m not going to cut off my nose to spite my face. Which differentiates me from the typical Tea Bagger.

In other words, I’m not going to return the party that created this miserable, god-awful stench to power because the turnaround isn’t conforming to my personal timetable.

Republicans: Why, after seeing how conscience-free businessmen gutted our economy with the eager assistance of beady-eyed congressmen skilled only in cash-raising fellatio, do you want to elect even more pro-business and anti-regulation types to office?

What exactly will this fix?

Look around you. This is the result of business let off the leash of regulation. These are the effects of trickle-down tax breaks for billionaires. Nearly a quarter of the population is either unemployed or underemployed. Please. Tell me—how is this small government, big business dynamic a good thing?

We’ve already tried it. It doesn’t work!

Democrats: I’m disappointed, too. But now you’re willing to stand aside and allow the likes of Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino and Carly Fiorina to be installed as our official, for real, can’t-take-it-back leadership? Really?

Because if you think it’s bad now, what do you think of this as The New Economy?

Have you forgotten that Republicans contested every single piece of legislation introduced in the House and Senate with the sole objective being to extend this economic deprivation for as long as possible so that it might be used as cannon fodder for the next election cycle?

What do you think of that? How does that make you feel?

I don’t appreciate being a political plaything. I don’t appreciate having my head held under water until I cry ‘uncle’. Have Democrats made mistakes? Absolutely. Are they imperfect manipulators of popular opinion? Certainly.

But given the context, I will choose the well-intentioned bumbler over the mean-spirited cretins offered as ‘alternatives’ every single day of the week.

Any mental health expert can tell you the decisions we make when angry are poor ones. The anger that fuels the Tea Baggers makes for great television, but is something less when used as a tool for deciding a country’s political future.

Halloween is October 31st. Not November 2nd. Dress up as creeps, freaks and ghouls today. But please, don’t vote for them on Tuesday.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Jimmy Page Made Me a Beer Snob!

As a young man growing up in the wide-open seventies, it was everywhere. But I just wasn’t that into it. Other guys talked about it all the time. How much they got. What it was like. And how good they were at getting it. But it wasn’t that big a deal to me.

I mean, I had my share. It wasn’t like I lived in a monastery or anything. But I just didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

Thanks to the passage of time, I now understand why I was so ambivalent about beer. And what did you think I was talking about, anyway?

American beer had long since lapsed into mass-market mediocrity by the nineteen-seventies, using the same marketing strategy that made McDonald’s the nation’s most-popular restaurant.

Brewers had for decades dumbed-down their beer to appeal to the broadest-possible market. They removed the distinguishing characteristics—its personality—until it was inoffensive to everyone.
But at the same time, no one was especially passionate about it. Which is why by the end of the seventies, imports like Beck’s and Heineken had carved out a tidy little niche for themselves.

Adding to import's cache (at least on planet La Piazza Gancio) was a picture in Circus magazine of a bleary-eyed Jimmy Page clutching a bottle of Heineken, surrounded by voluptuous groupies. That was all I needed to know. It was the beer Jimmy Page drank. The faint affection I had for Old Style, Schlitz and Budweiser disappeared immediately.

Celebrity associations aside, imported beers just tasted better. They were hearty, with hops selected for flavor and texture and not what advertising campaigns euphemistically referred to as ‘smoothness’.

They also had a higher alcohol content, which was a definite plus to a college-age male.

I was fast becoming a beer snob.

At least that’s what friends called me when I expressed my disdain for Pabst Blue Ribbon. But imported beers were expensive, and college kids and cash find themselves together as often as I do with Megan Fox and Scarlett Johansson.

This often meant drinking domestics while dreaming of imports. Would this be a good time to ask if anyone recalls an O'Jays song called Your Body's Here With Me (But Your Mind Is on the Other Side of Town)'?

But with graduation came disposable income, and with disposable income came the kind of beer my taste buds craved. Beck’s. Beck’s Dark. Guinness. Pacifico. And with the 1971 revival of Anchor Steam Beer came the long, slow ascent of micro (or craft) breweries. Small-volume brewers dedicated to producing quality, not quantity.

By the nineteen-nineties, liquor store shelves were packed with their offerings. And I was grateful. The American beer drinker has never had it so good. Alcohol-infused nectar like New Belgium’s Blue Paddle pilsner, Sam Adam's Summer Ale and New Mexico’s Monk’s Ale even make right-wing conservatives tolerable.

Granted, there is an element of fashion in all of this.

Just as I had rejected my father’s Hamm’s and Blatz, kids today reject their father’s New Glarus and Goose Island. Pabst Blue Ribbon in particular enjoys a revival that is unfathomable to me. But time marches on, and every generation must distinguish itself from the one that came before.

But I won’t drink it. And neither, I’ll wager, would Jimmy Page.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Why Do Tea Baggers Deny Darwin?

The biggest and most unexposed contradiction of the Tea Bag movement is its resistance to natural selection.

Okay, let me re-phrase that. I don’t mean to imply that tea baggers are unevolved. I mean, most of them walk upright. And heavy, Neanderthal-like brow ridges are becoming more and more uncommon.

What I’m referring to is their refusal to acknowledge Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking work On the Origin of Species and his theory that organisms evolved in response to their environment.

It’s ironic because tea baggers are a group whose policies scream ‘survival of the fittest’. I can’t understand how the party that cherishes a big business, small government ideal can dismiss Darwin.

Tea baggers have declared that the federally-mandated minimum wage, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security all must be eliminated. That health care reform be repealed. That reproductive rights be diminished.

I won’t even mention the seething contempt they hold for the formation of a consumer protection agency. I mean, do these policies not paint a giant ‘Fuck you. You’re on your own.’ in big, red capital letters?

The political sitcom that has taken the most exclusionary and socially-hostile elements of Republican policy and squared them to the power of four instead continues to cling to creationism; the belief that some munificent dude with an I Dream of Jeannie fetish blinked and created the heavens and the Earth.

And people wonder why I call creationists unevolved.

To be fair, there are a few groups tea baggers deem worthy of protection. The wealthy. The powerful. And fetuses—at least until they leave the uterus. But for the rest of us, it’s Survivor: United States.

Try as I might, I can’t slip a piece of paper between Tea Bag policy and the notion of survival of the fittest. But what do I know?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How Tea Baggers Inspired Me to Bridge the Enthusiasm Gap

I just didn’t have the stomach for it. I was going to sit this election out. Such was my disgust with the party that rendered a congressional supermajority into a meek, sniveling, ninety-eight pound weakling.

That is, until I realized what the alternative was.

I realized what the alternative was when I heard people named Joe Miller, Sharron Angle, Rand Paul and Meg Whitman talk about “re-thinking” the minimum wage.

For those not familiar with teabag-speak, that’s code for eliminating it. Because the extravagance that is the minimum wage is stealing food from the table of America’s wealthy.

That’s right. You’re making too much money. Never mind the unpunished folk on Wall Street. Or our similarly unchastised ginormous corporate banks. Or even the unregulated businesses allowed to comport themselves like Bonobo monkeys under sanction from an addled presidential administration.

They’re not the problem. You are. Your indulgent lifestyle and skyrocketing wages are driving this country to the brink of ruin. And you must be stopped.

Taking a deep breath, I will admit this is unlikely to happen—even in the undeclared class war happening beneath our noses. But the fact the cast of Tea Baggers can say this in the midst of the worst economic climate in eighty-years sends up a giant red flare.

They have no fear of reprisal. No concern that the former office manager working as a part-time cashier at Wal-Mart, or the ex-machinist working as a security guard, or the downsized accountant applying at the local 7-11 will take exception to this outrage.


The same folk who have the temerity to suggest that victims of incest turn lemons into lemonade are now calling for sacrifices from the working poor, the hardest-hit victims of Republican economic policies. And I can't help but wonder who's next.

Like you, the thought of CEOs forced to drive last year’s S-class Mercedes keeps me up at night. As does bankers having to scale-back their annual visits to the Amalfi Coast to just three weeks.

But will someone please tell me what can be culled from a lifestyle that often does not even provide food, clothing and shelter?

Republicans are the Viaga which keeps the diseased dick of wealth and power ready, willing and able to rape anything within its reach. And without unified and strident opposition, we become the pharmacists writing the prescription.

If I can’t support Democrats, I can oppose Republicans. Vehemently. Passionately. And with extreme prejudice.

Consider the enthusiasm gap bridged.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Counter Culture

They are palaces of promise. Of anticipation. Of things yet to be savored. In their aisles lies an ocean of sensation needing only to be thawed, sautéed, grilled or broiled. Places without stripper poles aren't supposed to provoke the flights of fancy a supermarket does.

If asked to entertain a visitor from a foreign country, I would bring them to one. Show them the dozens of aisles with food neatly stacked upon shelves and produce artfully arrayed. Here is the bounty promised by a post-WWII America. This is the Land of Plenty envisioned by millions of immigrants.

Yet after working in one, I have come to understand that mine is a view very much in the minority. Despite the wonders of Stand n’ Stuff taco shells and laundry detergent scented like a mountain stream, it is apparent the majority of Americans find their weekly visits to the supermarket only slightly more appealing than an IRS audit.

In an effort to cease irritating my customers, as a supermarket cashier I have dialed down my formerly cheery “Hi! How are you?” to a no-nonsense “Have your preferred customer card?” as I begin whisking all manner of produce, meat, cartons and cans down the conveyor belt.

Adding to their unease is my occasional failure to correctly suss Italian parsley from curly leaf, or sale rolls from bulk rolls. Rest assured that whatever ADD tendencies Americans display while driving, we remain capable of laser-like focus while watching our groceries being tallied.

We may be too overscheduled to cut out (or even rip) the coupons we plan to use. Too addled to notice the ‘15 Items or Less’ sign over the check-out lane. Too distracted by ringing cell phones, whiney kids and trying to remember the PIN on our debit cards to notice what supermarket chain we’re in.

But god forbid the sale price of chicken breasts doesn’t appear within milliseconds of it being scanned lest a customer shriek “They’re supposed to be $1.99 a pound!”

Then a box of never-before-seen Italian three-cheese crackers appears. Or chipotle chilies in adobo sauce. Or a still-warm loaf of marbled rye bread. Sense of wonder rebooted.

Dreams die hard.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ten Words No One Would Ever Use to Describe Milwaukee

Coming on the heels of the news that it's the fourth-poorest city in the United States, I suppose you could accuse me of kicking Milwaukee when it's down.

And you'd be right.

Still, it's hard to love a place you exhausted your savings moving to, have wasted two years on a pointless job search in, and where none of your pictures ever turn out.

Keeping in mind that beauty (and ugliness) are in the eye of the beholder, here are ten words no one would ever use to describe Milwaukee:


Friday, September 24, 2010

Goodbye, Sir Charlie

One of my favorite music blogs passed away.

This sincere-but-tardy eulogy comes upon the realization that Sir Charlie Palmer is gone and it ain’t coming back. So goodbye, Sir. May you rest in peace.

Sir Charlie Palmer was a tart blend of commentary and music of every stripe. The picture of Karl Marx, the icon which read 'I Don't Give a Shit What Your House Is Worth' and the suggestions to support socialism and vote Labour were proof-enough of that.

Blues, reggae, garage, new wave, 60’s beat, folk and even country and western all made appearances. Likewise critical seventies relics like the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s Next and Brinsley Schwarz’s New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz .

It was where you went to find Ballboy. Kris Kristofferson. Tim Hardin. The Pretty Things. Son House. And Eek-a-mouse. And as if this ruddy-cheeked UK blog needed another infusion of personality, Sir Charlie used the names of players from his favorite football club as file links. Perfect.

But now it's gone.

You could argue that our multi-national conglomerates will once again be able to pay their Armani-suited executives bonuses now that this portal to sin and theft is gone. But you’d be wrong.

Home taping didn’t kill music, and neither will downloading obscure, long-out-of-print music off the Internet. In fact, blogs like Sir Charlie Palmer were likely the only things keeping memories of these musicians alive, given the capriciousness of record company deletion policies.

Once again, the people visiting blogs like Sir Charlie Palmer weren’t tweens looking for a bypass around iTunes, Amazon or Rhapsody for their B.o.B. or Katy Perry downloads. They were hardcore music lovers like myself with boxes and boxes and boxes of vinyl, cassettes and CDs.

When prompted to name dependents on my yearly income tax form, I was often tempted to list record companies. It wasn’t far from the truth.

And as much as my limited finances allow, let it be known that I have purchased CDs formerly downloaded off the Internet. Because like so many of my blog-visiting brethren, I am a musiholic. Someone who lives, breathes, eats and drinks music.

And when I fall for an album, I want the cover art and the lyrics and the names of the musicians and the producer and where it was recorded. Something tangible and tactile. Something as vivid and three-dimensional as the music itself.

Not a computer file or CD-R lettered in magic marker.

So if you’re part of the industry, please respond and tell me who I’m stealing from when I download an album that has been out of print for twenty or forty years. I could likely buy a $45 Japanese import, but allow me to respectfully point out that it is because of corporate monoliths like yours that I don’t have the $45 to begin with.

I see it this way: after decades of soaking people for fifteen-dollar CDs that cost less to make than vinyl LPs, stealing music off the Internet could be something of a—ahem—market correction.

But beyond that, blogs like Sir Charlie Palmer made music available the accountants in charge of our entertainment conglomerates have no idea even exists. In other words, he was creating demand. Do you understand that, Mr. Bean Counter?

Goodbye, Sir Charlie. You will be missed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Much Ado about Nothing

I will admit right off the bat that life could be much worse. I could have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this morning. I could be homeless, or filing for bankruptcy. I could be off to the hospital to visit my girlfriend after she was raped and beaten last night.

But I’m not.

Yet at the same time, it could also be a great deal better.

For example, I could have two compatible part-time jobs. Or just one full-time job with a living wage. Or sleep not riddled with eye-opening anxiety. Is an apartment with appliances that don’t date from the Carter administration asking too much?

I am weary. Life has become a slog through wet cement. Round and round and round I go, expending energy and effort but never arriving at my destination. True, you could argue that I now have two part-time jobs, whereas last spring I had none.

But consider this. Part-time job number one mandates where I live. And despite its offering of one week’s employment per month, it forbids me to be otherwise employed, as I must (technically) be available virtually around the clock, each and every day of the month.

Forgive my impudence, but didn’t the Emancipation Proclamation eliminate slavery?

Part-time job number two recently informed me that after September, I will no longer be able to take a week off each month to perform part-time job number one.

This despite my making this condition clear when asked if I had any extenuating circumstances that might affect my availability in a job interview last August.

With their subsequent extension of a job offer, didn't they indicate that this was reasonable and acceptable? That they were okay with it? Or am I just a dumb fuck?

Alas, I ask for too much. What on Earth am I thinking, smoking, drinking or otherwise ingesting? That I could conceivably be self-supporting? That I could conceivably possess two crappy part-time jobs?

My presumptuousness is as alarming as it is outrageous.

On my good days, I think to myself “OK. This isn’t working. Change it.” But it soon becomes evident that I am between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

The apartment? Even within the geographic area allowed by part-time job number one, I’m stuck. Landlords in my adopted state are the definition of provincial.

“You haven’t lived here all your life? You haven’t been at your job fifteen years? Hmmm. What are you? Some kind of transient? A job-hopper? You’re not very stable. You’re a very poor risk. And I can’t rent to you.”

And the job(s)? Logic would decree that if I find my current employment unsuitable, I should seek employment elsewhere. But I’m already playing the lottery, thank you very much.

Which is another way of saying I may as well petition the Yankees to become their centerfielder as apply for a position in the field in which I’ve spent the majority of my work life.

Employers have made it crystal clear that as a prospective candidate, I rank somewhere between a death row felon and a drooling imbecile who smells of feces.

Which is why I find myself in two incompatible part-time jobs that can dictate so many facets of my existence. Only the desperate need apply.

Serfdom, anyone?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Celebrity and Teachable Moments

Too often, I give in to a nature both skeptical and cynical. So when I read that Paris Hilton, a wealthy young woman who doesn’t have to do anything for anyone, was arrested for cocaine possession in Las Vegas, I was suffused with relief.

Not because she had been arrested. Far from it. What restored my faith in humanity was the fact that the cocaine wasn’t hers—she was merely keeping it for a friend.

In a world both distant and uncaring, here is someone willing to risk social embarrassment, legal problems and even prison for a troubled friend.

And it’s not just her. Celebrities of every stripe regularly place themselves in harm’s way by stowing all manner of illegal substances, stolen property and firearms for their friends.

The same celebrities whose cellulite and marital woes we mock and snicker at show us time and time again the true meaning of selflessness. Of deep and unwavering friendship. Look in the mirror and ask yourself: when was the last time I risked jail time for a friend?

The answer is you haven't. Shame on us.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Through My Eyes

As a young man working his way through school by alternately washing dishes in the student cafeteria, scraping paint for the local public works department, wiring outdoor signs as an apprentice electrician, heaving forty-pound boxes of fine china around for Marshall Fields and writing for the school newspaper, I had a vision.

A constant in my life that lent meaning to even the most menial labor.

I knew that if I diligently and relentlessly applied myself in my studies, I could conceivably one day become (drum roll, please) a supermarket cashier. Not a full-time cashier mind you, for that is a position both beyond and unworthy of my station. But a minimum wage, union-dues-paying, part-time cashier.

This was something that could happen.

Which isn't to say I have anything against supermarkets. Or cashiering. Or even unions—at least what’s left of them. But it’s not what I busted my ass getting a college degree for.

A year and-a-half into my job search, is this really all I have to show for it? Two part-time jobs which will barely slow my descent into financial oblivion?

I like to think that somewhere down the line, my do-what-you-gotta-do grit would impress an employer. But in our over-evolved society, being a supermarket cashier is viewed as an unfortunate detour from the pristine career trajectories employers now prefer in their candidates.

Yeah, I’m bitter. Wouldn’t you be?

I live in a world where radio talk show hosts must relinquish their jobs for saying the n-word. Where funding for the most profound breakthrough in the history of medicine is put on hold over a notion that it is injurious to embryos. And in which judges wring their hands out of slavish concern that felons aren’t made too uncomfortable by their surroundings.

Yet I belong to a group of people publicly and repeatedly demonized by the representation entrusted to look out for it.

I belong to a group of people employers resolutely refuse to hire. One Republicans maintain is a drain on America’s economy, and for whom all public funding must be stopped lest we drag the country further into the death spiral of deficit spending.

This as they fight tooth and nail to preserve tax breaks for the wealthiest one-percent of the population.

Somehow, treating the unemployed as if they're carriers of the plague is OK.

It is difficult—if not impossible—to avoid seeing the world through your own eyes. And this is the world through mine.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

You're Supposed to Die! Not Me!

I have to confess that I find people—and train wrecks—fascinating. Sometimes I can even tell them apart.

Take, for instance, the folk who gathered in the Mojave Desert recently to watch an off-road race.

I’ve always been of the opinion that people watch them for the same reasons Romans flocked to the Coliseum: to see blood spilled. Bones snap. Corpses splayed in unusual positions. That sort of thing.

So while our friends in the desert were ostensibly there to watch a race, what they really wanted was mechanical mayhem. Twisted metal. A shot of adrenaline to liven-up the weekend.

And to maximize the danger quotient, they packed themselves as closely as possible to the course. You can almost imagine them as the highly-modified vehicles hurtled by. “Ooh, did you feel that?”

But a funny thing happened. They got their crash. They got their mangled metal and violent sound effects. But eight of them also got killed.

And instead of questioning the unimaginable stupidity of standing within inches of vehicles moving at 60 miles per hour along a surface that could best be described as uneven, they turned on the driver (who had miraculously survived) and attempted to stone him.

Exactly what kind of consumerism is this? Give me what I want—but if you do I’ll kill you? Maybe they were offended that it was they—and not the driver—who died. Perhaps their sense of entitlement was challenged. And we all know what a bear that can be, don’t we?

No one will ever confuse these folk (along with their spiritual kin at monster truck shows and professional wrestling matches) with the leading lights of civilization. But the hypocrisy exhibited by these ghouls is staggering.

Even more staggering is the fact the driver (Brent Sloppy) later apologized on his Facebook page to those who tried to kill him. Is this what the threat of unconsidered, instant mass opinion hath wrought?

But all is not lost. It’s not just a grim peek into a curdled future. The next time you wonder who could conceivably cast a vote for Sarah Palin as president, you know.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Mosque in Manhattan

For a country founded on religious tolerance, New Yorkers seem in critically-short supply as they protest the construction of a mosque in Manhattan, supposedly on the site of 9-11.

First off, the proposed construction is only “on the site" of 9-11 to a real estate agent; the actual location is more than two blocks away. This is hardly the nyah-nyah-style provocation New Yorkers and conservatives are framing it as.

Islam had as much to do with 9-11 as Christianity does the opposition to gay marriage.

Religion is a prop. Something to cloak yourself (or your issue) in. Middle-eastern terrorists co-opt Islam the way conservatives do patriotism, God, fiscal responsibility and national security.

We’ve seen this movie before. Now would be a good time to remember it.

Furthermore, if allowing construction of a mosque in Manhattan is the ultimate in ‘disrespect’ to the victims of 9-11, where does the continued freedom of Osama bin Laden rank?

Just wondering.

Friday, August 6, 2010

I Have a (Pipe) Dream

Welcome. I’m La Piazza Gancio, and tonight on Interview we're pleased to have as our guest Dick Peanus.

Dick is the Chairman and CEO of the Deities, a corporate amalgamation of banks, investment houses, oil companies, credit card companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and healthcare providers.

Me: Hello and thank you for coming.

Dick smiles smugly and nods.

Me: I’d like to talk about business. Particularly in the midst of what appears to be the greatest financial catastrophe since the Great Depression. How are the Deities coping?

Dick: Through savvy management and the careful allocation of resources, the Deities have successfully weathered the storm and posted a seventy-billion dollar profit last quarter.

Me: Seventy-billion dollars! And that’s profit—not sales?

Dick: Yes.

Me: Isn’t that a bit more than just weathering the storm?

Dick: Well, in order to maintain market share, profitability and to serve our shareholders, changes had to be made. It didn’t just happen.

Me: What kind of changes?

Dick: It was necessary to divest ourselves of many of our human assets. These divestitures were a very painful and difficult decision.

Me: You mean you fired people.

Dick: Yes. It was either that or shut the doors. We have a responsibility to our shareholders, and we take that responsibility very seriously.

Me: I find it hard to believe that with extensive holdings in pharmaceuticals, oil, healthcare and on Wall Street that the Deities are or were in trouble.

Dick: You’d be surprised. Our operations and development costs are enormous, and they’re not going down any time soon. A good example is the cost of attracting the top drawer financial talent we need to develop new sources of revenue and keep them ahead of the curve.

Me: So the profits you make not only on Wall Street, but in pharmaceuticals, healthcare and oil barely cover expenses? Is that what you’re telling me?

Dick: You forget that we have shareholders. This isn’t just about us. There’s a bigger picture out there.

Me: How many shareholders are there?

Dick: Millions.

Me: I see. And how many shares do you own in the Deities?

Dick: I couldn’t tell you.

Me: I can. Six million. And when combined with the ten members of your executive board, the total goes to twenty-six million, or nearly three-quarters of the outstanding shares. So when you say ‘shareholders’, isn't that just code for you and the board?

Dick: I assure you, there are millions of shareholders. Secondly, every CEO and board member has stock options. It is commonplace for people in those positions to receive company stock as part of their compensation packages. There's nothing unusual about that.

Me: So let me get a handle on this. In addition to your traditional salaries, you also receive bonuses—which are unrelated to company performance. And then stock on top of that. Is that correct?

Dick nods yes.

Me: As the majority stockholder, isn't it conceivable that you stand to benefit personally from actions which don’t necessarily benefit the company as a whole?

Dick: Your point being?

Me: For instance, when company performance suffers because of wholesale layoffs, Wall Street blindly applauds the cost-cutting and the value of your stock goes up. You and the board consequently get to stuff your pockets with cash.

Dick: Look. We’re not a social welfare agency. It’s not our job to make sure that every American has a job.

Me: What exactly is your job?

Dick: To plot the course of the future. To turn a profit. To maintain and increase shareholder value.

Me: 'Shareholder' being, for all intent and purposes, you and the ten board members.

Dick: No comment.

Me: It leaves me speechless as well, Dick. Let’s turn to a different topic. How much in tax breaks, tax loopholes and corporate subsidies does the Deities receive annually?

Dick: I’m sure I don’t know.

Me: And what did the Deities contribute to political campaigns during the last election cycle? What did you spend on lobbyists?

Dick: I’m a CEO—not some accountant who tracks petty cash.

Me: Is that what you call one hundred and ninety-seven million dollars? Petty cash?

Dick shrugs his shoulders non-chalantly.

Me: But yet you needed to lay-off 13,000 employees because your revenue streams were drying up.

Dick: We’ve done nothing illegal.

Me: Only because you’ve purchased the law-makers and dictated the law.

Dick: As I said a minute ago, we’ve done nothing illegal. Every course of action taken by the Deities is completely within the law and upholds our responsibility to our stakeholders.

Me: Okay. Tell us about your 4 America campaign.

Dick: (brightening) In the Deities’ ongoing effort to promote good health, we are offering an American flag to anyone who participates in a health care plan administered by the Deities, or obtains a prescription for a pharmaceutical manufactured by one of our subsidiaries. However, pre-existing conditions may affect availability.

Me: (laughs) Yet at the same time, you’re throwing tens of thousands of people onto public relief rolls and taking away their health care coverage while you collect hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate subsidies and dodge millions more in taxes by claiming that the Deities are headquartered in a one-bedroom apartment on the Isle of Man. Curious form of patriotism, don’t you think?

Dick: (angrily) Who underwrote the Matisse exhibit at the Guggenheim? And the Eugene O’Neill playhouse on public TV? Who brought the Ballet Company of Sierra Leone to Lincoln Center? Who organized fund-raising for the two Pandas on loan from China at the National Zoo? We did!

Me: And you received still-another tax break for doing it! And then you turn around and buy fear-mongering politicians who campaign on the threat of an unprecedented transfer of wealth should a Democrat take office and enact budget-busting social programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance. Is that correct?

Dick stares resolutely ahead.

Me: Dick, isn’t it true that there is indeed an unprecedented transfer of wealth occurring in this country, but that it’s flowing upstream, not down? Isn’t it true that while income for the middle class has increased just twenty percent since 1979, income for the wealthiest one or two percent of has increased over one hundred and seventy percent in the same period? Isn’t it true that you and the elected representation you buy are in fact stealing the country as you consign the poor and middle classes to what will eventually be an existence of Industrial Age slavery? Isn’t it true? Isn’t it?

Dick says nothing.

Me: Tell me I have it wrong, Dick. Please.

Dick: (tersely) For the last time, everything we have done is within the framework of the law. We have done nothing illegal.

Me: So your best answer is that you haven't broken any of the laws you had your employees in the DC office write. What a sterling achievement. (Disgustedly) Goodnight, America.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Does This Make You Angry?

This op-ed piece by Bob Herbert of the New York Times appeared in the July 30th edition of that newspaper.

The treatment of workers by American corporations has been worse — far more treacherous — than most of the population realizes. There was no need for so many men and women to be forced out of their jobs in the downturn known as the great recession.

Many of those workers were cashiered for no reason other than outright greed by corporate managers. And that cruel, irresponsible, shortsighted policy has resulted in widespread human suffering and is doing great harm to the economy.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Andrew Sum, an economics professor and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. “Not only did they throw all these people off the payrolls, they also cut back on the hours of the people who stayed on the job.”

As Professor Sum studied the data coming in from the recession, he realized that the carnage that occurred in the workplace was out of proportion to the economic hit that corporations were taking. While no one questions the severity of the downturn — the worst of the entire post-World War II period — the economic data show that workers to a great extent were shamefully exploited.

The recession officially started in December 2007. From the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009, real aggregate output in the U.S., as measured by the gross domestic product, fell by about 2.5 percent. But employers cut their payrolls by 6 percent.

In many cases, bosses told panicked workers who were still on the job that they had to take pay cuts or cuts in hours, or both. And raises were out of the question. The staggering job losses and stagnant wages are central reasons why any real recovery has been so difficult.

“They threw out far more workers and hours than they lost output,” said Professor Sum. “Here’s what happened: At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion.”

That kind of disconnect, said Mr. Sum, had never been seen before in all the decades since World War II.

In short, the corporations are making out like bandits. Now they’re sitting on mountains of cash and they still are not interested in hiring to any significant degree, or strengthening workers’ paychecks.

Productivity tells the story. Increases in the productivity of American workers are supposed to go hand in hand with improvements in their standard of living. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work. That’s how the economic pie expands, and we’re all supposed to have a fair share of that expansion.

Corporations have now said the hell with that. Economists believe the nation may have emerged, technically, from the recession early in the summer of 2009. As Professor Sum writes in a new study for the labor market center, this period of economic recovery “has seen the most lopsided gains in corporate profits relative to real wages and salaries in our history.”

Worker productivity has increased dramatically, but the workers themselves have seen no gains from their increased production. It has all gone to corporate profits. This is unprecedented in the postwar years, and it is wrong.

Having taken everything for themselves, the corporations are so awash in cash they don’t know what to do with it all. Citing a recent article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Professor Sum noted that in July cash at the nation’s nonfinancial corporations stood at $1.84 trillion, a 27 percent increase over early 2007. Moody’s has pointed out that as a percent of total company assets, cash has reached a level not seen in the past half-century.

Executives are delighted with this ill-gotten bonanza. Charles D. McLane Jr. is the chief financial officer of Alcoa, which recently experienced a turnaround in profits and a 22 percent increase in revenue. As The Times reported this week, Mr. McLane assured investors that his company was in no hurry to bring back 37,000 workers who were let go since 2008. The plan is to minimize rehires wherever possible, he said, adding, “We’re not only holding head-count levels, but are also driving restructuring this quarter that will result in further reductions.”

There can be no robust recovery as long as corporations are intent on keeping idle workers sidelined and squeezing the pay of those on the job.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Germany and Japan, because of a combination of government and corporate policies, suffered far less worker dislocation in the recession than the U.S. Until we begin to value our workers, and understand the critical importance of employment to a thriving economy, we will continue to see our standards of living decline.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Here, There and Everywhere

I’ve been fortunate to have drunk deeply from the cup of travel.

True, I’ve never strolled down the Champs Elysees nor wandered the market stalls of Marrakech. I’ve never laid eyes upon Milford Sound or walked beneath the orange trees on the tiled sidewalks of Seville.

But I’ve been to Pioche, Nevada. Holly Springs, Mississippi. Sublette, Kansas and Leadville, Colorado. Woken up in the green cathedral of the North Cascades. Shared the view from Hurricane Ridge with a grazing doe at sunset. And escorted a tarantula across a parking lot in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

I’ve gazed in awe at an arm of the Milky Way from the 3AM darkness of eastern Tennessee. Heard the paper on my cigarette burn amid the utter stillness of El Malpais National Monument. Drunk chicory coffee and eaten powdered sugar-covered beignets at the Café du Monde in New Orleans.

I’ve been rendered speechless by St. Mary’s Lake in Glacier. Struck dumb by Monument Valley. And cowed by the looming shadow of Rainier. I’ve smelled the deep, rich earth of Iowa after a rainstorm, tasted the barbeque of Memphis and Kansas City, and wondered at the colors and shapes of Bryce Canyon.

I’ve climbed Mount Taylor and raced an approaching thunderstorm to its treeline. I’ve explored miles of volcanic plumbing at Craters of the Moon National Monument, and unimaginable formations at Carlsbad Caverns. Been the sole visitor at Mount Rushmore and part of the throng at Old Faithful.

I’ve sat on the porch of the Wortley Hotel in complete contentment. Pondered the Sonoran Desert after a spring rain. Spent two days in Bismarck, North Dakota stranded by a faulty brake caliper. And one in Livingston, Montana owing to an expired alternator.

I’ve been awakened by high tide washing underneath and around the car my friends and I fell asleep in after a youthful drinking binge on Padre Island. Learned the meaning of eternity on a drive from El Paso to San Antonio. Woken shivering on the Fourth of July. And eaten a Mexican dinner after a day of hiking at Arches that was as enormous as it was delicious.

I’ve seen the purple mountain’s majesty along US-93 in Nevada, and the amber waves of grain in Kansas.

Yes, life is sweet.

Yet these memories are a two-edged sword; knowing what life can be makes it painful when it is something less. The more constrained I become, the more I need a steering wheel in my hands and unseen sights in my eyes.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Your Opinion Please!

Now that I have enriched your lives with good advice, I turn to you for same.

How do you best answer the question ‘Have you applied to this company before’ when a previous attempt was unsuccessful?

Since the application process is basically one of elimination, your submission risks instant dismissal by answering ‘yes’. After all, an employer reasons, if they didn't hire you before, why would they hire you now?

Answer ‘no’ and thanks to computerized data bases, it’s only a matter of a few keystrokes to see if you’re lying. This of course also guarantees your efforts will be consigned to the cyber circular file.

Your opinion please!

Good Advice

If you have a job, buy it the best, most-expensive bottle of champagne you can afford. The biggest, freshest bouquet of flowers. Invite it to your home.

There, sip the champagne. Breathe deeply the bouquet. Take your job in a long, meaningful embrace. When appropriate, retire to your bedroom and make passionate love to it. Scale the summit of orgasm many times.

For you have no idea how fortunate you are.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Living Lucky

The phone rang. It was Lucky.

"How you doing?" he asked.

“No different than last time” I said. “How ‘bout you?”

“I’m so tired of this crap. I want to retire.”

I laughed in knowing acknowledgement.

“You want to get together? Have a few beers, shoot the breeze?"

“Can’t” I said. “So what’s up? You still have a job?”

“Barely” said Lucky.

“What do you mean?”

A long sigh. Then the sound of a bottle being emptied.

“Well, remember how I needed to make my numbers in June, or that was it?”


“Well, I didn’t hit ‘em. Then I got called into Amber’s office, and I walk in and the district manager’s there. I figured it was the end.”

That Lucky figured it was the end meant, of course, that it wasn’t. What bullet had he dodged now?

“They give me this crap about how they’re going to go out on a limb for me, and how they’ve decided to give me one more chance since I’ve been with the company so long. And you know what I find out when I go back on the floor?”


“Janie, our best salesperson, is leaving. And they finally fired this screw-up Jason, so they’re short. They’re not giving me another chance—they’re shorthanded. And with a big sale coming up. Assholes.”

I laughed. “So that’s a bad thing? You have a paycheck for another month, plus some commission. What’s the problem?”

“Those assholes acting like they’re doing me a favor. Piss on ‘em! They think I’m some kind of idiot. I sat there hat in hand and said ‘thank you’ and ‘I really appreciate it’. God.”

“That’s why it's called work” I said. “That’s why we need to be paid to be there. Who the hell would put up with it for free?”

Lucky huffed in affirmation.

It being nearly ten PM, I didn't want to further ignite his/mine/our considerable rage, so I nudged the conversation in another direction.

“You hear anything about that gig you took the personality inventory for?"

“Yeah. I interviewed Tuesday. The HR person is on vacation, but the manager said they’d like to move on it when she gets back.”

“Wait. So you have another job lined up?” I began to laugh. Lucky was great therapy.

“It looks that way.”

I collapsed into laughter. I couldn’t stop. I needed to investigate the possibility of having Lucky purchase lottery tickets for me.

“I’m glad you’re in such a great mood!”

I was able to stop only long enough to ask a question.

“Can you do me a favor? Look out the window and tell me if there’s a truck parked outside that says Publisher’s Clearing House on it and a bunch of people approaching your front door with balloons.”

“Ha ha” said Lucky.

“I’m serious! I can’t believe you!” I said. “It’s incredible! Every time you come close to being fired, it's like a giant bird swoops down and saves your ass! You're fireproof!”

Delirium set in as I pondered my friend. Life will seemingly not allow him to lose a job, nor me to find one.

The contrast is remarkable.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Other End of the Line

A friend of mine recently posted a very funny blog about dealing with the phone company. It doesn’t seem to matter what continent you’re on, the phone company is always The Phone Company.

But the cluelessness isn't limited to one end of the line.

I should know. I spent many years working for one. The following is a faithful recollection of a call I received while working there. I doubt I’ll ever forget it. The names have been changed, etc.

Me: Thank you for calling Qwest Communications. My name is Danny. How can I help you?

Customer: Now listen up Danny. My name is Joe Strocek, and I’m a snowbird from Erie, Pennsylvania. I was told that a technician needs to come out to start up my service, but there’s just no way that needs to happen. There’s been service there before.

Me: Okay. Let me take a look at the address. Where did you want to set-up your service?

(Customer gives me the address of a popular RV park in Phoenix. I run a facility check and it comes up as ‘technician visit required’.)

Me: Okay Joe. I checked the address, and it’s coming up as one that requires a visit.

Customer: Now don’t tell me that Danny. That’s not what I want to hear.

Me: I know it’s frustrating. But at…

Customer: Look. I spent thirty-seven years working for a utility in Pennsylvania. I know when a technician needs to come out, and when they don’t. And a technician doesn’t need to come out here, Danny. Now what are you going to do about this?

Me: Let me double-check with Tech, and I’ll be back to you as soon as I can. Can you hold for a sec?

Customer: Sure.

(I call our facility technicians in Phoenix, and get a status report on the availability of lines at the RV park the customer is moving to. A technician does indeed need to go out and bring a line to the CO for this address.)

Me: Joe?

Customer: Yep.

Me: Thanks for holding. I called our office in Phoenix, and we definitely need to send a technician out to get your service up and running. I wish I could tell you differently, but we need to bring a line to your box. Are there any extenuating health conditions that would allow me to make this a priority install?

Customer: Now look here, Danny. I know you have a switch there by your desk. Will you please just flip the dang thing so my wife and I can have our phone service?

Me: Joe, we’re a for-profit company. Believe me, if we could start billing you now we would. But we can’t.

Customer: I know this game. Okay? Now will you PLEASE just flip the damn switch?

Me: Joe, this is what I have in my cubicle: a computer, a bunch of binders and manuals, some pens, a cup of coffee and a scratch pad of paper. That’s all. No switch—I promise.


(I'd already spent over ten minutes on this call, and it was going nowhere. It was obvious that only a technician visit and the subsequent sound of dial tone was going to convince Joe. Which is why I said...)

Me: Okay. It’s flipped.

Customer: Thank you! (click.)

I left extensive notes on the account explaining the conversation and what had (and had not) been confirmed, but never checked back to see when ol’ Joe got his telephone service.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Right Profile

I’m always grateful for the chance to laugh at corporate America. If reinventing the wheel and fixing what isn’t broken guaranteed success, America’s corporations would be world-beaters.

They would be the indomitable industry leaders their help wanted posts say they are—even without the corporate welfare, government subsidies and abundant tax loopholes.

The latest opportunity for mirth comes from a friend, referred to in an earlier post as Lucky.

Lucky is looking to make a lateral move within the company he has faithfully served for nearly a quarter-century. It is commonly agreed that Lucky is a fine person, and has done a wonderful job in whatever department he has landed.

But the new and improved version of his employer requires that Lucky submit to a personality profile, which guarantees a perfect match for the companies who use them.

This is likely the reason people no longer leave their jobs or are fired, because thanks to the personality profile, every hire is now a perfect hire.

Oh wait, they do. And they are. But now I'm not being a team player. *sniff*

Long story short, Lucky failed his personality inventory.

After determining that he possessed an unacceptable number of undesirable personality traits, the computer e-mailed Lucky at his company e-mail address to inform him that no further action would be taken on his application.

Imagine the employment that could have been prevented had personality profiles been in use when Lucky first applied twenty-five years ago.

Think of the profitability, the market share so cavalierly and ignorantly thrown away. They coulda been contenders. Sigh.

The same corporate America that brought you the Chevrolet Vega and Coke II has decided the personality profile is its latest panacea. Could someone cue Public Enemy's Don't Believe the Hype?

To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of corporate America.

Letter from LeBron?

This appeared in an advice column the day before twenty-five year-old basketball deity LeBron James announced he would be leaving his hometown of Cleveland for the sun and glitter of Miami:

Dear Abby,

Twenty-years ago, I was in love with “Connie”, a girl who was my best friend and soul mate. We had so much in common. Connie was chubby—not fat, just not a size 3.

Being 22 at the time, I became infatuated with “Lisa”, who was a size 3. Lisa was also jealous, insecure and still tied to her mother. I snapped one day and left her—the smartest thing I have ever done.

By then, of course, Connie had moved on, and I deeply regret my wandering eye, lack of sensitivity and misplaced values. My life would be so much happier had I done what was right instead of being stupid.

Connie, I am told, is happily married, and I would not wreck her marriage. I have remained single. I don’t know if you can offer me advice, but if my experience can help another young man to recognize the beauty within, he will be happier than I am.

--Wiser Now in Ohio

We’ll need a few years to determine its prescience, but it’s an interesting coincidence, no?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


It’s awkward, this unemployment thing.

I’m talking to my oldest friend on the phone. For the purpose of this post, I’ll call him Lucky. He’s the only person I know who’s spent a decade—twenty-five years, actually—with one company.

Don’t get the wrong idea—this isn’t a tidy ascent up the corporate ladder to the corner office. Lucky has been laboring in a strata with a far-lower profile.

The thing is, Lucky has avoided screwing up, pissing anyone off or likewise calling unwanted attention to himself for nearly a quarter-century. It is a remarkable achievement. He has perfected the art of workplace camouflage.

He was smart-enough to pick a company that has never been the object of a hostile takeover, and a job that has never been determined by a financial analyst to be a profit-sucking hole.

He has successfully avoided the employment contractions that have become a fact of life for virtually every other person I know. In 2010, when fifty-something white males bear a disproportionate share of America’s job loss, Lucky has a job.

But judging by his phone calls of the past eight or nine months, he is convinced this will soon not be the case. Faced with sales goals for the first time in his work life, he is struggling.

Yet every time the guillotine is set to fall, there is a store-wide sale. Or a homeowner in need of a custom-made bedroom set. Only RNC Chairman Michael Steele has dodged more bullets.

If the twin pressures of a weak economy and working in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately arena of sales aren’t enough, Lucky is also in the midst of a full-blown mid-life crisis. “What have I done with my life?” he asks.

I assure him there will be no statues of me in municipal parks, either.

As best I can, I caution him that 2010 isn’t the year to embark on a journey of self-discovery. I tell him 2010 is all about the survival. I can hear him straining against the newly-understood confines of his life.

The conversation then circles back to other things, like June’s unmet sales goals.

I confirm for Lucky that if his managers, coaches and supervisors really wanted him gone, he’d be gone. They would have waited by the door at the close of business June 30th and requested his name tag and work ID.

Lucky suddenly realizes he’s doing Chicken Little for someone for whom the sky has already fallen. “How are you doin’?”, he asks.

I give him the short answer and attempt to kid.

“There’s no way you’re going to be fired. I’m putting up a life-size cut-out of you and I’m going to rub its head every time I send out a resume. You’re Teflon Dude. Nothing sticks!”

My jealousy is showing. Friends aren’t supposed to be jealous of their friend’s lack of unemployment, are they? I have farted in an elevator.

I take a hard right and steer the conversation towards sports. “You think the Bulls are going to sign LeBron?” We then take the obligatory digs at each other’s favorite baseball team.

And so it goes until we simultaneously notice the time.

Like I said, awkward.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Job Gap Killed. Employer Held as Suspect.

At last the light of employment has shone down upon my wretched soul.

It's not the sunlight of full-time-with-benefits employment, but rather the flickering light of a candle on the other side of the room. Which is to say the employment is both part-time and temporary. But it puts an end to the yawning job gap on my resume.

If you’ve searched for work lately, you know that possessing a job gap is akin to answering ‘yes’ to the 'Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ question. It is being a serial rapist, a child molester and a meth addict, only without the appeals.

My newfound employment says to America’s human resource professionals: Look—company X hired him and didn’t contract a fatal disease, go into receivership or land amidst a congressional investigation.

It relieves them of being Mikey from those old Life cereal commercials. More importantly, it is an experiment conducted on someone else's dime, and not theirs.

Lastly, it also inebriates the sober reality that breathing has become a form of debt creation. I’m not out of the woods by any means. But at least a clearing shows up on my dash-mounted nav now.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

New Parking Lot

When destitute, one must be creative in seeking entertainment. One must be alert to the entertainment potential of your immediate surroundings, as the usual avenues of museums, movies and sporting events are now off-limits.

In yet-another heinous and spiteful contradiction, unemployment dictates that just as you are most in need of diversion, you will be least-able to afford it. Which is likely why I was so thrilled when my apartment complex announced it was going to repave its parking lot.

The announcement was sprinkled with the sort of zero-tolerance warnings currently in fashion. Many exclamation points were used.

"All cars must be removed from the parking by 6:00 AM! Those not in compliance will be towed at owner’s expense—no questions asked!" This was followed by one final declaration of authority: "No Exceptions!"

Being possessed of a cynical and skeptical nature, I snickered. The phrase ‘no exceptions’ practically guarantees there will be. It promises exceptions as surely as heathens slather their French fries with ketchup.

The very phrase flies in the face of our modern temperament. In America we are all exceptions. It goes hand in hand with our sixth sense—entitlement.

Yet childrearing experts (and even some parents) caution against this. They advise consistency in the enforcement of rules, and stress that when consequences and punishments are called for that they be carried out.

This because children (like their older and bigger counterparts) quickly learn to discern and tune out empty threats.

I positioned myself on the appointed morning at the window which overlooks the parking lot. Six AM found three cars still in the parking lot. Their mute defiance sent a chill down my spine. This was going to be, if not quite Shakespearian drama, better than a morning on

The leader of the construction crew was on a cell phone, gesturing wildly at the offending vehicles. Soon, the complex’s lead maintenance man was on the scene, also speaking into a cell phone. Next was the property manager. She, too, was on a cell phone.

For all I knew, they were calling in their grocery orders to But this tempest of cellular activity seemed to indicate that decisive action was being taken, and being taken quickly. I was impressed.

This gave way to astonishment when a municipal police car arrived. A tall, balding cop with the requisite mustache and aviator shades exited the squad car, ticket book in hand. He was going to write tickets! Cars were going to be towed! Exceptions were going to be snuffed out like cigarettes!

My pulse raced. My head throbbed. Why hadn’t I brewed decaf instead?

A flatbed tow truck then entered the lot, picking its way through the maze of idled construction equipment. There was now a faint layer of perspiration on my palms. I was a-quiver with anticipation.

I was also premature.

At six forty-five, two of the exceptions were located. He stumbled out of the building in flip-flops, gym shorts and a ratty t-shirt. She followed a few minutes later in way-too-tight sweat pants, a way-too-tight top and a cell phone seemingly grafted to the side of her head.

The cop and the property manager spoke to each. Drama King impatiently jingled his key ring as he listened to their lecture. Drama Queen couldn’t even be bothered to turn off her phone. She would periodically pause the lecture with an upraised index finger as she monitored her call.

Afterwards, the royal couple sped-off petulantly in their respective vehicles. The cop spread his arms out in their wake, a non-verbal “What are you gonna do?”

There was one exception left.

Cell phones were again employed in a desperate search for the owner of the third car. Perhaps it had been stolen and left overnight. Perhaps it belonged to someone’s overnight hook-up. Perhaps the owner didn’t give a damn.

Whatever the reason, the car was finally loaded onto the flatbed and taken away. Work on the repaving began at seven-thirty sharp.

No exceptions.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Of Gym Teachers and Bishops

I have a problem with authority. The crappy kind, anyway.

Have since I was in the seventh-grade and a gym teacher reacted poorly to frustration I expressed at failing to bat in three successive softball games.

The fact that I had used the medium of the four-letter word to convey my regret did little to help matters, especially since this was 1970.

In a class full of chronic malcontents and discipline problems, this gym teacher choose to get tough with otherwise quiet, obedient me.

He grabbed the front of my gym shirt and put his face very near mine. I can still see the spittle flying as he laid into me with a fury he never shared with the kids who chronically talked back.

Or hid behind bushes and smoked as opposed to running marathons.

Or mooned passing cars.

But I learned a lot about authority that day. It is likely all I learned at that execrable school.

Authority is fallible. Authority can and does seek the path of least-resistance. Authority is opportunistic.

And that the stated reason for your punishment may or may not be related to the reason you are being punished.

Which brings me to Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted.

Olmsted heads the Phoenix diocese of the Catholic Church, and recently excommunicated Sister Margaret McBride for her participation in an abortion performed at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

McBride was a hospital administrator, and a member of the ethics committee that signed-off on the procedure.

A twenty-seven year-old mother of four suffered from pulmonary hypertension, and eleven-weeks into her pregnancy, it was determined her life was in danger if the pregnancy was not terminated.

Entirely justifiable abortion, right? End of story, right?


Bishop Olmsted’s official statement maintained “An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a mother’s life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means.”

Of course, this is only pandering to a political viewpoint. It’s too unthinking, too color-by-numbers rote to be taken seriously. It begs the question what is the real reason Sister McBride was fired?

It wasn’t because she acted in accordance to the most-humane dictates of her faith and served the greater good (one unborn infant being less a tragedy than five motherless children).

We’re ready when you’re ready, Tommy.