Monday, December 23, 2013

My Chicago Bulls Christmas Wish

One of the things sport taught me is the meaning of words like ephemeral and ethereal. That life is fragile. And short. That no matter how indomitable something may appear, it is often little more than smoke curling through air. It takes only a faint breeze to disturb and redirect its trajectory.

In the spring of 2011, the Chicago Bulls were a young team on the rise. They had lucked into that elusive thing called chemistry, with talented, heady players who bought into a charismatic coach’s vision of how the game should be played. All of this was cemented by the skills of a nascent superstar named Derrick Rose.

Yes, the view from northeast Illinois was mighty sweet. The Miami Heat might be the team of today, but it was very hard to believe the Bulls weren’t the team of tomorrow. Yet two and-a-half years later, the team of tomorrow looks like the woulda shoulda coulda team of yesterday.

Derrick Rose’s future as an NBA point guard is very much in doubt after successive anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus injuries. It’s hard to look at him and not see Anfernee Hardaway or Grant Hill.

Small forward Luol Deng has already expressed his intent to explore free agency, following public questioning of his toughness and commitment. Power forward Carlos Boozer, signed to an enormous contract following the Bulls failed attempts to land either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010, will likely remain, but is untradeable and on the downside of a productive career.

Gritty point guard Kirk Hinrich is feeling the effects of multiple seasons spent sacrificing his body in the name of defense, leaving center Joakim Noah and reserve forward Taj Gibson as the Bulls’ sole long-term assets.

The window of opportunity that magically opens for certain combinations of players and coaches has silently and immutably closed. Run ragged by an unceasing succession of injuries, the formerly resilient Bulls are now exhausted and overwhelmed. It is a good thing it’s Christmas.

My Christmas wish for the Bulls begins with David Robinson’s foot.

You see, David Robinson was an elite professional basketball player. He was fast, strong and agile. He was a seven-foot center who could move with the speed and quickness of a much smaller man. He single-handedly turned the San Antonio Spurs into contenders, and quickly became one of the NBA’s most dominant players.

His greatest weakness was that he possessed the physiology of a human being.

On December 23rd, 1996, while playing in just his sixth game after recovering from an off-season back injury, Robinson suffered a broken foot. This not only ended his season, but effectively ended the Spurs’ as well. Without their stellar center and small forward Sean Elliot, they nose-dived to an NBA-worst 20 and 62 record.

But with Robinson’s injury and the Spurs’ dismal 1996/97 season came a blessing: the number-one pick in the 1997 NBA draft. And with it, the Spurs chose Tim Duncan, beginning a run of sixteen straight winning seasons which includes four NBA championships.

So as this scarred and ravaged edition of the Chicago Bulls picks its way through the schedule, the prospect of a high draft pick in next year’s draft might be the silver lining in what has become a very dark cloud. I’m not advocating tanking here; just holding out a carrot amid the wreckage of what was once a contender.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Vampires in Brooks Brothers Suits

In December of 2011, I posted a piece called Giving It Away. It was about corporate welfare in Illinois. In the seven-hundred days since, nothing has changed.

The state’s finances remain in ruins, critical legislation has not been passed, and the blood-sucking ghouls who inhabit our executive suites continue to approach the state for hand-outs.

With Christmas just under a month away, I thought it would be appropriate to post about the Illinois state legislature’s ongoing efforts at playing Santa:


In 2010, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling. Part of the fallout from the infamous Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision was that corporations possessed the same rights as individuals insofar as political advocacy is concerned.

And three years later, I agree. Corporations are people. So let’s start treating them as such.

In year-six of the Great Recession, U.S. corporations continue to approach state governments for hand-outs. An executive has only to play a few rounds of golf with officials from another state or municipality before legislators are scurrying to round-up a fresh batch of write-offs, deferments, loopholes and (nudge-nudge) “incentives”.

Yet conservatives continue to sputter and rage over the alleged over-taxation and over-regulation of these same corporations. The fact that corporate tax rates are a mere shadow of their nineteen-fifties selves, or that the corporate tax code is riddled with loopholes is irrelevant.

Where were they when Apple CEO Tim Cook testified that Apple’s tax rate on recent income of seventy-four billion dollars was two-percent? Exactly how is it that a corporation maintaining a post office box in some exotic tax haven (thereby exempting it from U.S. taxes) qualifies it as over-regulated?

Much less over-taxed?

While our elected representation pays requisite lip service to the vanishing middle-class and the mounting struggles of the working man every campaign cycle, they reliably enable corporations to duck tens of millions of dollars in taxes.

Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) provides a textbook example.

The food-processing and commodities-trading monolith is a glowing corporate success. They ranked twenty-seventh on the 2013 edition of Fortune magazine’s Fortune 500 list, with revenue of eighty-nine billion dollars.

Less-impressive is the fact they could teach Vito Corleone a thing or two about extortion.

ADM approached the state of Illinois—even as it lay emaciated and shrunken on its deathbed—and coyly curling a strand of hair around its fingers, intimated it might want to move. But they’re not sure where. It could be Dallas or St. Louis or even Chicago.

There are just so many places!

The Illinois General Assembly obediently responded. Its latest offer, while a reduction from the forty-million dollars ADM originally sought, is a big, fat giveaway to a company making a mountain of money even a professional athlete couldn’t imagine.

ADM feels it should be compensated for remaining in the intolerable backwater of Decatur, Illinois. Ask yourself: where are those well-heeled executive wives even supposed to shop?

From my vantage point, Archer Daniels Midland appears to be doing just fine. It’s a little tough to see that they need to be paid for anything apart from the services they render their customers. Their employees are doing a bang-up job, and I think ADM’s towering revenue is reward-enough for their judicious hiring.

(But if ADM truly feels unappreciated, I’d be happy to drop in and give their execs a hearty pat on the back.)

With a mountain of unpaid bills, an unfunded pension crisis that is the worst in the nation and bond ratings that are falling like interest in the Jonas Brothers, doesn’t Illinois have enough drama without yielding to the demands of a blood-sucking corporate parasite?

Exactly what should four-thousand jobs (the number of ADM employees in Decatur) cost—if anything? Furthermore, why pay ADM for hiring people who are already making vast amounts of money for them? Is there any conclusive proof that paying companies to stay outweighs the giveaways and tax forfeitures?

Furthermore, this legislation allows ADM to keep their employee’s income tax withholding, reason being that since there are years in which they have no tax obligation to the state, they are unable to take advantage of certain incentives.

Which is like asking Macy’s to compensate you because you weren’t able to use all their coupons.

Ostensibly, the bill will require ADM to create jobs, as well as maintain its current staffing levels. But despite living in the age of (ahem) over-regulated businesses, I have yet to see a government tell a corporation it couldn’t lay-off its employees. Or insist that it hire.

And neither have you.

When asked if he could guarantee that ADM would remain in Illinois after catching a glimpse of its early Christmas present, Greg Webb, their vice-president of government relations, could only issue a tepid “I don’t know about the guarantee part.”

Fuck you too, Greg.

This sucks for everyone—except Archer Daniels Midland. Taxpayers should never, ever be a corporate revenue stream.

Congress slashed unemployment benefits in August. Now we have the six-percent cut in food stamp (SNAP) benefits. Middle-class wages are flat. Benefits are disappearing—along with full-time jobs.

Tens of millions of people remain un—or under—employed as a result of the corporate-induced Great Recession, which I think we can all agree is just great.

Our Supreme Court declared that corporations are people, too. What I want to know is when do we start treating them like one?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My (Kind of) Hi-Tech Adventure

In the context of 2013, buying and installing a new printer is the technological equivalent of blowing your nose. Grab a tissue. Honk. Toss.

Simple.

So when my decade-old Lexmark printer ceased functioning, I assumed that replacing it would be routine.

But my inner cynic was not so easily swayed.

“Are you fucking serious? This is a computer. The concept of simple does not exist. Your computer was outdated by the time Bush began his second term. You’re up the creek without a paddle, pal.”

Shaken, I soldiered on. After all, my tech needs were very basic. All I needed was something that could faithfully duplicate whatever I had committed to Microsoft Word. I wouldn’t be demanding professional quality photo prints by remote from Angkor Wat with my iPhone.

My first choice was the HP Envy 4500. It seemed like the perfect fit between the limited abilities of my 2002 Dell Dimension 8200 and whatever I might be getting in the future. Plus, the chart on the outside of the box confirmed it was compatible with Windows XP.

But as Abbott and Costello once observed, the big print giveth, the small print taketh away.

Long story short, my computer refused to recognize the Envy 4500. This despite CD-ROMs, manufacturer web sites, downloads, workarounds and user forums. I had even gone under the hood and disabled things I never knew existed. All to no avail.

Of course, this warning didn’t exactly fuel my determination:

Continuing your installation of this software may impair or destabilize the correct operation of your system either immediately or in the future. Microsoft strongly recommends that you stop this installation now and contact the hardware vendor for software that has passed Windows logo testing.

So this was about logos? Couldn’t I just hire a graphics designer and have them develop one that was mutually appealing to HP and Microsoft?

I sighed. This was another item for the Does Not Compute list. A list of things that, while virtually incomprehensible to me, were facts of life in the senseless regions outside my brain.

Calls to HP’s 24/7 help desk netted only 24/7 messages that all available agents were busy, but that my call was very important to them. Of course, it wasn’t important-enough to adequately staff their call center, but that’s another story for another day.

As a HP spokesperson no doubt would have told me, it was this very lack of support that had made my HP printer so affordable. Having learned that when I push my luck it frequently pushes back, I abandoned the installation.

On returning the Envy, the twenty-somethings at the local big box store took one look at the gray in my hair and assumed the worst. They clearly took me for a moron. Or a technophobe.

Couldn’t they see I was the bastard offspring of Wozniak, Gates and Jobs? What was wrong with them? Besides, if I was a moron, would I have refused their suggestion that a tech install it for just $29.95?

Once my credit card (and my thinking) had been adjusted, I determined it must’ve been the wireless capacity that was subverting the installation. Like my computer, I needed something simpler.

My next victim was the HP 2512. It had great reviews, and looked like the Luddite-approved printer my computer was insisting upon. But after another day-off disappeared, a thought broke through the stony incomprehension of my ignorance: I needed to try another brand.

Yeah, that was it.

Armed with the kind of optimism only the truly naive can harbor, I returned to the big box store where I had purchased the 2512. I was determined to find a really basic printer.

And by basic, I mean one that only recently had been configured to work with electricity. Was there any chance Gutenberg had entered the computer printer game?

Fate led me to the Canon MG2520. It sat forlorn, a $29.95 misfit on a shelf full of machines that could do everything except your laundry. I scanned its box carefully, making sure it was a printer without ambition.

Copy, scan, print. Nothing more. Nothing less. Perfect.

I rode a wave of happy ignorance home, confident I had finally found the right printer. The third time is always the charm.

Isn’t it?

On opening the box, this seemed to be the case. For starters, the Canon didn’t require that a man with man-sized hands reach into a tiny space better-suited for a ten-year-old's to remove packing tape from pieces that, even without said tape, had all the mobility of a death row felon.

Secondly, the requisite pan-cultural sheet with illustrations depicting the actions required for set-up actually used drawings that resembled my purchase.

Even with a pool nowhere in sight, this was going swimmingly!

On and on it went, my confidence (or relief) zooming like a rocket. Any higher and I would need an oxygen mask.

I needn’t have worried.

At the point where I was to install the drivers, my computer displayed the same poor manners it had shown the two HP printers. It refused to acknowledge them. No matter how I attempted the install, it resembled an international feud at the UN.

"I beg of you. Will the secretary general please recognize the drivers from Canon?"

"No."

In a spasm of desperation no one installing a printer should ever feel, I attempted to defy Microsoft and their skull-and-crossbones message. “You want unstable? I’ll show you unstable!” I muttered as I clicked the button marked ‘Continue Anyway’.

Despite the promise of gleeful insurrection, clicking the button only returned me to the original screen and a second chance to make the “right” decision. This was a twisted and infuriating re-run of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

I could practically hear Regis Philbin. “Is that your final answer? Are you sure?”

With the discovery that Canon’s help desk was only open Monday through Friday, a household project I had been putting off suddenly seemed very appealing. As would crucifixion.

On Monday morning, a weary male voice greeted me. It wordlessly intoned “What do you want?”

After outlining my experiences to the rep, I obediently inserted the CD-ROM into the disc drive and initiated the install. “Same old thing” I smugly informed him.

In direct opposition to the manufacturer’s instructions, he had me do things. Ignore things. Defy Microsoft. Confident I could pursue legal action if my hard drive crashed, I consented.

Only this time, the rebellion was a success. The drivers had not only been installed, but my computer was acknowledging them like an honors student at a Miss Manners academy.

But I had questions. Why, despite my computer meeting the detailed system requirements listed on each of the three printers, had it been such a headache getting them to work?

The rep responded. “Sometimes, an operating system like XP will confibulate the central processing unit, causing retrofluxes in the random access memory which prevents, ugh, secondary collateral processes from initiating a world takeover.”

Or something like that.

“I see” I lied and thanked him for his time.

Twelve car trips, nine days, three models from two manufacturers and one USB cable later, I finally had a functional printer.

My streamlined and supercharged information age existence could now continue.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Riffing on the Movies

It’s a bit odd that I don’t post more often about movies, considering their profound impact on me. So many of the most fulfilling moments of my life have been spent in darkened theaters, given over to an absorbing story line playing out on a giant silver screen.

How could I forget the nights of my youth, taking in the cinematic wonders of the thirties, forties and fifties flickering for free on late night TV? Or seeing The Godfather, Raging Bull, The Last Emperor or The Painted Veil in a theater? They looked like beautiful gems on a black velvet pillow.

Like you, I have my favorites. In addition to the above, there’s Out of the Past, Vertigo, Picnic at Hanging Rock, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Last Picture Show, The Wrestler, La Strada, Network, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Casablanca. And Fargo, The Hustler, A Streetcar Named Desire and Ikiru. And Rashomon and Citizen Kane and Mulholland Drive.

Can I really ignore Lawrence of Arabia, Chinatown, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or 12 Angry Men? Or Mr. Roberts, The Shawshank Redemption and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Hell no.

Just to make it an even thirty, let’s throw in His Girl Friday and My Cousin Vinny. (I don’t broadcast the fact, but yes—I laugh. Sometimes.)

Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski are geniuses. John Huston, Werner Herzog, Steven Spielberg, Federico Fellini, Sidney Lumet and Peter Weir aren’t far behind.

Which leaves out Sydney Pollack, the Coen brothers, Stanley Kubrick, Bryan Forbes, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, John Schlesinger, Robert Altman and Anthony Minghella!

Crap. No wonder I don’t post more film blogs.

As best I can, I reckon I have seen approximately 1,057 movies in their entirety. The decade most often represented is the eighties, which makes sense since a. I was young, and b. had disposable income.

I have seen more of Hitchcock's films than any other director’s, and find it very appropriate that, given the extravagant imagery of his films, Fellini died on Halloween.

In a really peculiar bit of coincidence, the countries which produce my favorite cars are also the country of origin for my favorite foreign-language films (Japan, Italy and Germany).

I tend to like movies featuring conflicted and troubled individuals. Individuals facing dilemmas, moral and otherwise.

That said, I love film noir. It is, without a doubt, my favorite genre. And for my money, Out of the Past is the ne plus ultra of the species. Razor-sharp dialogue, great cinematography and one of the best performances of Robert Mitchum’s career.

Not surprisingly, Jane Greer is my femme fatale of all-time. Her Kathie Moffat has a heart colder than a stripper’s smile. To borrow a line from the Gene Hackman movie Heist, she could talk her way out of a sunburn.

This is also Kirk Douglas’ first film, and for an actor lampooned for his over-the-top performances, he turns in a taut, no-frills one here, conveying a violent menace barely contained by a cool exterior.

OK. That's the end of the blog. If you’re of a mind to, leave your favorites in the comments section. I am nothing if not curious.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities

No one in St. Louis expected to be celebrating the Cardinals so soon after the free-agent departure of Albert Pujols. The loss of the Lou Gehrig clone was expected to impact the team for years, especially combined with the retirement of manager slash savant Tony LaRussa.

But in the two years since, all the Cardinals have done is located another brilliant manager (Mike Matheny), successfully replaced perhaps the most dominant player of the oughts, and won.

In their first PP (post-Pujols) season, the Cardinals won a very respectable 88 games. Using a modest wild card slot as a launching pad, they took the eventual-champion San Francisco Giants all the way to a seventh game in the 2012 NLCS. (This after defeating the team with the best record in major league baseball in the second round.)

They took no chances this year, winning more games (97) than any team in the National League and tying the surprising Boston Red Sox for the major-league lead. After dispatching the Pittsburgh Pirates, they stand just one victory away from their fourth World Series in ten years.

In the meantime, the once-invincible Pujols looks decidedly human in an Angels uniform, having hit just .275 over the past two seasons with a .485 slugging percentage. By comparison, his eleven seasons in St. Louis netted a batting average of .328 and a slugging percentage of .617.

Worse, the Angels are stuck with Pujols through 2021 (when he turns 41), at a cost of $240 million. Given these two very different outcomes, you could be forgiven for thinking the most popular joke in St. Louis is this:

Moe: Knock knock.

Joe: Who’s there?

Moe: Albert.

Joe: Albert who?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Seeing the Light

Some combination of you and me and us are going about this all wrong. There should be no more grieving faces. No more makeshift memorials. No more eulogies. No more somber testimonials.

The next time a dozen people have the gall to get in the way of a constitutionally-protected individual exercising their second amendment rights, we need to seize it as an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade.

We need to expose the silver lining lurking in this cloud. We need to rejoice.

This isn’t a tragedy. It’s an expression of constitutional strength. Our second amendment is alive and kicking—even if twelve innocent people aren't.

As America’s BFF (NRA head Wayne LaPierre) put it yesterday, this isn’t a case of wanton gun violence further cheapening life in what many of us pretend is the greatest country in the world; it’s a tragic example of the urgent need for better security.

Which is kind of like saying it wasn’t the overflowing toilet that ruined your wooden floor, it was the fact the water happened to be wet.

(Wayne is the Super Fly of semantics. He splits hairs with the facile ease that Enrico Fermi split atoms.)

So. Freed of our burdens, and imbued with the knowledge that in Wayne's world, we need only fear not having enough guns, let us sing. Let us clap our hands and raise our voices in celebration.

The second amendment has never been more potent. Let us lift the world off its axis with our newfound joy. No more tears. No more regret.

We possess the means to kill, and kill we shall.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Dying to Play Baseball

About seven years ago, I began blogging on MySpace. For whatever reason, I fell in with a group that included many people from Australia.

I found them to be among the most friendly and good-natured people I have ever known. When international travel was an option, I desired urgently to visit there.

Imagine, then, my sorrow when the events of Friday, August 18th became public.

If you don’t already know, a young man from Melbourne, wanting only to play baseball here, was shot to death in order to relieve the boredom of three teenagers.

Christopher Lane was a guest. If first-degree murder isn't punishable by death, shouldn't wanting to play baseball in America be as well?

While not enjoying popular support, a well-organized and monied minority works fervently to ensure that as many Americans have access to the greatest number of guns as much of the time as is humanly possible.

Gun advocates feel gun ownership is the lynchpin of democracy. No guns = no democracy.

Sadly, we will never have the opportunity to test that theory.

It is gun advocates (i.e. the angry and the ignorant) who believe gun ownership is the great leveler which will one day make everything right. Guns are the six-chambered courtroom where the verdict always comes out in their favor.

Their guns will protect them from currency manipulation, global warming and perhaps even foreigners from playing baseball.

In reality, what America has to show for its reinforced Second Amendment is the first world’s highest murder-by-gun rate.

Only countries wracked by political instability, entrenched corruption and inescapable poverty enjoy a higher per-capita rate than the United States.

Let me say it again: being the first world leader in gun-related homicides is our gift for our unswerving maintenance of the Second Amendment.

I’m sure the family of Christopher Lane is very grateful.

Australia isn’t perfect. Neither, I suspect, are Australians. But in light of Mr. Lane’s murder, I am well and truly embarrassed to call myself an American.

His death seems an awfully high price to pay for a fantasy.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Nickel and Dimed

Traditionally, Illinois has been known as the Land of Lincoln. And while the association with a revered public official is certainly laudable, one has to wonder how representative it is nearly one-hundred-fifty years after his death.

To provide a more appropriate picture of twenty-first century Illinois, I propose a new slogan. Call it The Kama Sutra State. Or Land of Kama Sutra. Does the sexy tingle of State of Kama Sutra do anything for you?

OK. You might wonder what the Kama Sutra has to do with Illinois, especially since the former is an ancient Indian sex manual and the latter is smack dab in the middle of the Midwest.

Let me explain.

Within the Kama Sutra are a staggering variety of male-female couplings in all manner of positions. Many of them require an almost inhuman degree of flexibility.

As a resident of Illinois, it’s only natural I would be reminded of the Kama Sutra when I see the torturous contortions citizens attempt in order to meet the needs of state and municipal agencies.

Let me share two small, everyday examples.

Example number-one is our state lottery, which was recently privatized in the belief that the golden hand of business would reduce costs, increase efficiency and send profits soaring.

Of course, the only people who believe business has a golden hand are those who have never been employed by one.

Our new and improved lottery has mostly succeeded in missing revenue targets and failing to pay agreed-upon penalties. As of this writing, Northstar Lottery Group owes the state of Illinois roughly twenty-million dollars for not boosting lottery sales to the heights promised.

As a result, Northstar has taken the path all businesses take when they need to increase revenue. With no appreciable payroll to cut, they have raised the price of their product.

They didn't devise an irresistible lottery game that has Illinois citizens lining-up to play. Or initiate a clever and attention-grabbing marketing campaign that has us seeing the lottery in a fresh new light.

No. They just doubled the cost of a lottery number.

This is the inspired business acumen for which the state ponied up one hundred twenty-five million dollars.

For those who play the lottery, this means ten bucks now buys half as many numbers as it did before privatization. Or ten instead of twenty. Five instead of ten. You get the idea.

I’m guessing you’ve been waiting as anxiously as I for just the right opportunity to cut your chances of winning the lottery in half.

What I really want to know is how long it’s going to take for Northstar to cough-up the twenty mil it owes the state. According to my calculations, it should be half as long as it was before the increase.

But that’s just me. And this, after all, is Illinois.

And then there’s the Chicago Transit Authority and their no-change ticket dispensers, which pocket surfeit cash from hapless riders unarmed with exact change.

But even the retention of unearned money hasn’t kept the CTA from declaring yet-another cash shortfall, necessitating yet-another round of talk about service cuts and rate hikes.

You’re already keeping my change! What more do you want? My socks?

We could always drive, but after the giveaway of the city’s parking meter revenue in a seventy-five year contract to Chicago Parking Meter LLC, the CTA is definitely the lesser of two evils.

(Unless of course you take some kind of perverse pleasure in paying the nation’s highest parking rates.)

None of this would be so irksome if Illinois didn’t boast the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation. Or if Chicago’s wasn’t stuck at ten percent.

Or if our thirty-dollar-an-hour bus drivers were occasionally a tad more polite and understanding of those who don’t ride their bus five days a week.

But it is. And they aren’t.

So yes, the comparisons are apt. We are the Land of Kama Sutra.

Because like the figures in that text, we invariably get fucked.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

La Piazza Gancio Finds His Flow

Several years ago, I wrote about an old friend named Lucky. He has the distinction of being the only person I know to spend twenty-five years with a single employer.

But it hasn’t been easy. Nor is it.

Interacting with twenty-first Americans in the context of retail frequently resembles punishment. One which should be meted out to deserving folk like congressmen, state legislators, city councilmen and garden-variety felons.

Misled by corporate marketing and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, a public temporarily ignorant of corporate priorties demand that things happen the moment they wish them.

The problem is, unless possessed by multiple personalities, most employees can only be in one place at one time.

Exacerbating the situation is that, like your employer, Lucky's also believes that payroll must be kept to an absolute minimum, lest still-more emaciated corpses pile-up in the executive wing.

Maximum stress, minimum wage. Where do I apply?

One memorable day, Lucky found a “guest” rifling through the contents of the department stockroom. It seems the guest was time-challenged and could not wait for Lucky to finish with his customers.

When confronted, the guest took great exception to Lucky’s contention that the stockroom was off-limits to customers. The guest channeled his howling, righteous indignation and repeatedly attempted to intimidate Lucky by yelling “Are you through? Are you through?”

To his credit, Lucky resisted the urge to escalate the encounter and merely asked the guest if there was anything he could help him with. Frustrated (and perhaps even embarrassed), the guest stalked off.

I regret that Lucky wasn’t more familiar with the films of Groucho Marx, who famously asked in one “Shall I call a cab or would you like to leave in a huff?”

Inspired by this incident and by my own experiences, I wrote this.

It’s dedicated to retail workers everywhere.

Put shoes up
Take shoes down
Carson’s is a circus
And I’m their clown

Please don’t stare
I’m painfully aware
Of just how long
I been there

It makes me ill
I wish I could fix
The fact that I been here
Since eighty-six

Employer’s clueless
The public’s shoeless
I keep thinking
How long I gotta do this?

Beat up beat down
Self-esteem is just a noun
Like the bosses Rolex
I get wound

I caught this chump
In my stockroom
Bitch kept asking
Am I through?

I see his ass
Just one more time
He gonna wish
He stayed in line

The shoes get stocked
I get mocked
Maybe you should know
My Uzi’s cocked

Ask me again
Am I through?
My other gun’s a Glock
It’s loaded too

Employer’s clueless
The public’s shoeless
I keep thinking
How long I gotta do this?

Beat up beat down
Self-esteem is just a noun
Like the bosses Rolex
I get wound

The biggest irony
The seventh circle of hell
Is that fate demands
That I must sell

You the shoes
That walk on me
And kick me
Til I bruise

I’m a slave
You don’t need to behave
It’s the sale
I got to save

You want a better deal?
A bigger coupon?
Then log your sorry ass
On to Groupon

Employer’s clueless
The public’s shoeless
I keep thinking
How long I gotta do this?

Beat up beat down
Self-esteem is just a noun
Like the bosses Rolex
I get wound

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Like a Dog

This is how to become a judge: go to law school, play a little golf, cut some checks to the right foundations and political campaigns and voila! One appointment later you’re a well-compensated dispenser of justice.

Note that none of these activities prove you are someone unusually qualified to arbitrate on matters of justice. Just that you're well-connected.

Keep a low profile, don’t piss anybody off and the job is essentially yours for life.

While the rest of us do the work of several and sweat the vagaries of shareholder dividends and corporate profit margins as related to the company payroll, Cook County circuit court judges like James Obbish merely have to breathe.

Inhale, exhale. Yeah, it’s good to be judge.

Perhaps it’s too good. Maybe a life spent on golf courses and at lavish fund-raisers is so far removed from the increasingly-grim realities of life in the 21st century that one becomes detached. Isolated. Out of touch. Perspective is warped.

Which might be the only way to explain Obbish’s decision in the Kyle Voissem case.

Kyle Voissem is a twenty-one year-old man who, after his puppy had urinated on the floor, threw a pot of scalding water on it. The mountain cur puppy suffered second and third-degree burns on more than half its body as a result.

Instead of Judge Obbish seeing this as (at best) an inappropriate expression of anger and (at worst) the path at least one criminologist cites as the first indication of a serial killer within, Obbish lashed out at animal-rights groups.

Obbish sided with Voissem’s attorney, saying that as a result of their campaigning, Voissem was now saddled with an “internet tattoo” which precludes him from landing gainful employment.

Awww.

Ensconced in his judicial cocoon, Judge Obbish is unaware of our current recession. He is ignorant of the fact that millions of people—with and without tattoos—are unable to find work. And that animal rights groups have very, very little to do with it.

I don’t belong to the anti-cruelty society. I don’t go out in my car and collect stray cats and dogs. I’m not even a vegetarian. But the appalling cruelty of Voissem’s act should be crystal clear to all—especially a judge.

We’ve all muttered “I’m gonna kill him”, or words to that effect under our breath. But very, very few of us have acted on them.

There is a world of difference between entertaining a fleeting thought and lifting a pot of boiling water, taking aim and discharging its contents on the four-legged equivalent of an infant.

Let’s be clear Judge Obbish—Kyle Voissem isn’t the victim here. The puppy who peed on a floor is.

This is the creature who suffered. Not the selfish, unfeeling young man who dissolved into a tower of rage because a mere animal had inconvenienced him.

You get that, right?

Does Kyle Voissem have any idea of the indignities that life has in store for him? And more to the point—is he even equipped to deal with them?

The fact that Obbish let the conduct of animal rights groups determine his decision is an act as disturbing as Voissem’s.

Commenting on the “organized campaign to destroy a human being” Obbish asked “Is everyone out there so perfect that they never made a mistake, never reacted in anger?"

Sure, Judge. But it didn’t involve inflicting third-degree burns on a puppy.

What’s next? Letting serial rapists off the hook because they’re getting bad press?

Finally, in Obbish’s infinite empathy for the unemployed Kyle Voissem and his internet tattoo, Obbish wouldn’t even prevent Voissem from owing a pet while on probation.

Wow. Let me think about that one.

I can't help but wonder how Obbish would react if he had a daughter and Kyle Voissem expressed a desire to date her.

Think words like “No way scumbag! You keep your dog-scalding hands off her or I’ll put you so deep in prison they’ll need to pump air to you!” would find their way into the conversation?

Me, too.

While I’m not inclined to believe Voissem should spend the rest of his life in prison (three-months in a minimum-security facility sounds about right), a year’s probation which fails to even keep Kyle Voissem from owning another dog seems wildly and extravagantly generous.

As does reappointment for Judge Obbish when his current term expires June 30, 2015.

I’ve got my calendar marked.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Putting L.A. in the Rearview

I hate the Los Angeles Lakers.

They’re the popular kid everyone seeks attention from. They’re the talented kid who effortlessly succeeds at everything. They’re the smirking kid who never gets caught. And needless to say, never suffers.

Yeah, I hate them.

So imagine my delight when one of this summer’s most-coveted NBA free-agents publicly turned them down. With apologies to Stevie Wonder, for once in my life there was a player who didn’t lust over the prospect of wearing purple and yellow and playing in the lurid capitol of glam.

Wait. Is this really happening? Did the quarterback-slash-prom king just get snubbed?

This is OMG rare. Rare like an issue of Cosmopolitan without the word 'sex' on the cover. Or congress enacting legislation. Or middle-class wages rising.

It just doesn’t happen.

But there it was in yesterday’s sports section: ‘Dwight Howard headed to Houston’.

Predictably, the popular kid didn’t react well.

Even Shaquille O’Neal, who left the Lakers in a huff following an unsuccessful showdown with Kobe Bryant, re-discovered his loyalty and chided Howard’s decision, saying Howard couldn’t handle the pressure of playing on a stage as prominent as L.A.’s.

Maybe.

But at the age of twenty-seven and in his athletic prime, perhaps Howard didn’t see the point of committing to an aging team whose prima dona centerpiece is a year or two (or one unsuccessful rehab) away from retirement.

And I’d be a little more reluctant to call Howard’s decision to play in Houston (where he’ll relentlessly be compared to the luminous Hakeem Olajuwon) ducking the limelight. Ducking the limelight would be Minnesota. Salt Lake City. Charlotte.

Not the fourth-largest city in the United States.

Dwight Howard spent a season playing basketball at the end of the rainbow, and he didn’t like it. For once the popular kid gets to see what it’s like on our side of the rainbow.

Yay.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Kid-Free? Finally!

It’s an idea that is long overdue.

The Sushi Bar, a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, has declared itself kid-free, advising potential patrons that no one under the age of eighteen will be permitted to dine.

And I say hallelujah.

But judging from the torrent of outrage, you’d think the government announced it was going to begin confiscating personal property.

First off, let’s get one thing straight: I’m not a kid hater.

But in the overheated, finger-pointing hysteria that passes for civilization here in the United States (and perhaps where you live as well), children have attained an almost god-like status.

And those who don’t buy into the idea that everything must be sacrificed for their benefit all the time are regarded with suspicion. It’s kind of like being a Communist in the McCarthy era.

Furthermore, what’s wrong with the idea of kid-free? Is there something intrinsically evil about the concept of stores or restaurants free of hyperactive/tired/poorly-behaved children and their inattentive and exhausted parents?

Not a thing.

Everyone—childless or not—can cite an experience impacted by a child shoehorned into a setting in which it didn’t belong. Concert halls. Weddings. Slow-food restaurants. Movie theaters. And those are just the beginning.

All, with the occasional exception of a movie theater, are kid-inappropriate.

Whatever presumed selfishness I possess by remaining childless is dwarfed by parents who seem to feel that if they must suffer their children’s tantrums, then by god you shall, too.

There are always plenty of excuses: babysitters are child-molesters, I can’t find one, I can’t afford one, I don't have time, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

The currently-embraced psychological fashion says that everything is a choice. And there isn’t an option—Cosmopolitan magazine to the contrary—that allows you to have it all.

Having kids means you might have to sacrifice a visit to the symphony to hear Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major when a sitter can’t be found. Just as not having kids means you’ll have to do without the joy found in a child’s first words.

No one gets everything all the time.

An old expression says crying children are like good intentions—they should be carried out.

With parents who understand where children do—and don’t—belong, and without kids forced to endure events which hold absolutely no interest for them, we might find the market for kid-free zones diminished. If not eliminated entirely.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Grand Illusion

At this stage of the game, I’ve come to understand that retail is theater. It’s a dramatic production, complete with set, director, cast, crew and backstage theatrics.

It has a script. A set of words that, in addition to bringing uniformity to employee-customer exchanges, will hopefully distinguish this production from the others currently being staged.

But even as one production works to separate itself from another, they invariably end up being indistinguishable. They unfailingly adopt identical twists and wrinkles, like teen-agers embracing the same fad even as they seek to establish their individuality.

Case in point is the reluctance of business to write or speak any word or phrase which imparts the faintest inference of ‘no’.

I recently wrote a letter to a frozen pizza manufacturer, bemoaning the sudden disappearance of my favorite variety. Instead of receiving a simple confirmation, I received several paragraphs of public relations froth extolling the virtues of its replacement.

At no point was my query addressed, presumably because it meant acknowledging that my life was now bereft of my favorite frozen pizza, and they were to blame.

Despite my deep and abiding love of this pizza, I can promise with absolute certainty that life would have continued even had this company possessed the clarity and intestinal fortitude to address my question with a simple “We’re sorry. The pizza you inquired about didn’t meet sales projections, and as a result has been replaced by another variety. Thank you for your interest in Home Run Inn pizza.”

Then there was the live, in-person example I received at my place of underemployment.

A man had been waiting at our contractor’s desk. Manning the register nearest this desk, I approached and asked if I could help. After hearing the reason for his visit, I informed him the desk was closed weekends and was on the verge of directing him to the people who could help when our new store manager swooped in.

After informing me in tones an aggrieved teacher would use with an errant pupil that the desk is “never” closed, she escorted the customer to the department I was directing him to in the first place.

I stood and pondered our contractor’s desk. Despite it lacking any of the five employees who normally populated it and the attendant bustle of activity, I had obviously erred in assuming it was closed.

What was I thinking?

Exactly how does this deception benefit our customer? Then I realized the irreparable damage his psyche would have suffered as a result of hearing our contractor’s desk was, indeed, closed weekends.

So there’s that.

And then there’s the irreversable damage my employer could have suffered had this customer gone online and vented. It’s too horrible to even consider.

Write this down—customers must never hear the word ‘no’. It doesn’t exist. No never happens.

So yes, retail is theater. A carefully-packaged drama where reality is whatever the playwright says it is.

In addition to his more-obvious gifts, who knew Shakespeare’s declaration “All the world’s a stage” would presage twenty-first century business models?

You must excuse me now. I have a matinee at two.

Monday, April 15, 2013

It's All About Me

About two months ago, I wrote something called It’s All About You. In it, I listed the ten posts most-often visited by you, the loyal readers of The Square Peg.

Now, in It’s All About Me, I have done something a little different. I have listed my favorite posts.

But first a little background:

When I first shared my singular brand of humor, cynicism and social commentary on MySpace sometime in 2006, I was immediately celebrated for my keen insight. I was hailed as the world’s most-respected and trenchant observer of American politics and society.

I was soon dining with dignitaries; being asked for my opinion on everything from the Iraq war and campaign finance reform to Tom DeLay and the arrival of a new social media called Twitter.

I was nominated for seats on several prestigious global think tanks, and signed a six-million-dollar deal to publish my memoirs.

Crap. I wasn't. And I didn't. Re-write!

OK. The less-interesting truth is I continued to post on MySpace until twitchy tech-obsessives made blogging there a challenge to my sanity. I finally cried “Uncle!” and moved to Blogger in the summer of 2009.

Stupidly, I never backed up the MySpace posts, thinking that despite every other element of MySpace changing by the minute, the blog would somehow remain in perpetuity.

The upshot was that I lost over two-hundred posts. While I didn’t mind losing most of them, there were a few—maybe ten percent—I was proud of and wanted to keep.

Which is just my roundabout and convoluted way of telling you that these are my twenty favorite posts. (I’ve provided links if you care to investigate further.)

Should you ever find yourself climbing out of your skull from boredom, remember these are guaranteed to remove your crampons and confiscate your ice pick lest you become the next You Tube sensation.


La Piazza Gancio’s Guide to Unemployment 10/14/09 here

Got Truck? 11/4/09 here

The CEO Personality Assessment 12/7/09 here

It’s 2018. Do You Know Where Your Democracy Is? 1/29/10 here

Giving Care 3/16/10 here

New Parking Lot 6/9/10 here

Awkward 7/7/10 here

Goodbye, Sir Charlie 9/24/10 here

The Bootleg 11/16/10 here

The Milk of Human Kindness 11/23/10 here

Counter Culture, Pt. 2 12/1/10 here

Wait 12/19/10 here

I Am a Music Magnet 12/27/10 here

The Hamster Wheel 6/8/11 here

Ron Santo 12/6/11 here

Giving It Away 12/13/11 here

Oops!...I Did It Again 1/26/12 here

Shooting of the Month 8/6/12 here

Doing God’s Work 11/29/12 here

Policy 3/4/13 here

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fetus Cult Strikes Again!

North Dakota has suffered population loss for decades. Sitting atop a column of states that comprise the geographical backbone of the lower forty-eight, one possible reason might be that it offers its residents the most extreme weather of any state in the union.

Long, brutal winters and hot, dry summers punish those foolish enough to attempt eking out a living in the state’s agriculture-based economy.

True, the oil shale boom in Williston has brought much-needed revenue, but only a few see this as anything but a temporary spike.

The population density of North Dakota continues to be rivaled only by South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Oil shale or not, North Dakota is a windswept, lonely place. It’s Scotland without the coastline and single-malt whiskey.

Perhaps this is the reason the state’s legislature has seen fit to enact the nation’s most restrictive abortion legislation. North Dakota is desperate to replace a population that, if it isn’t calling U-Haul, is dying.

Repopulation efforts nonwithstanding, I’m having a hard time reconciling conservative’s fetus obsession with their abject refusal to enact a ban on assault weapons.

Let me get this straight: at six weeks, North Dakota conservatives are according a fertilized egg the rights and stature of a human being, even as congressional conservatives refuse to restrict—in any way—the means available to kill it.

(Abortion excepted, of course.)

But shred that human being with an automatic weapon dispersing 400 rounds a minute? Fine. Great. Have at it.

In fact, conservatives maintain that possessing the means to do so is our most vital constitutional right and needs to be zealously guarded.

I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I just can’t get my brain around this.

It's obviously too small to be a Republican.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

You and Your Job

In my ongoing efforts to supply you, the valued Square Peg reader, with timely and relevant blog content, I offer this highly-scientific profile builder designed to articulate your feelings about work.

It will tell you whether it's time to look for a new job or get measured for a boardroom-ready designer suit. You need only to respond to the statements below to discover if you and your job are just a tawdry one-night hook-up or a bona fide LTR.

Read each of the eleven statements and choose the true or false answer that best matches your feelings. Hint: first responses are usually best.


01. Work is a continual annoyance, like a stone in your shoe which cannot be removed. True or false.

02. Only kidney stones pass more painfully than time at work. True or false.

03. When you exit the building at the end of the day, you look skywards, spread your arms in supplication and beseech an uncaring and spiteful god with the words “What did I ever do?” True or false.

04. You’ve ceased listening to Highway to Hell because it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to your drive to work. True or false.

05. Every day you don’t claw your eyes out in sheer agony is a small, but significant, victory. True or false.

06. Sartre’s concept that hell is your co-workers (admitedly a rough translation) may be truer than anyone suspects. True or false.

07. Only a proctologist sees more assholes than you do. True or false.

08. You understand the significance of the German expression arbeit macht frei, and wonder that your employer hasn’t inscribed it on the walls of the cafeteria. True or false.

09. Horrible Bosses isn’t a comedy, it’s a documentary. True or false.

10. Inducing internal organ failure has become a reasonable alternative to getting up and going to work tomorrow. True or false.

11. You are troubled by recurring dreams of animals chewing off their limbs to escape a trap. True or false.


Scoring:

For each true response, give yourself three points. For each false, zero. Total your points and match the total to the profiles below.

00 – 00 Once, you were upset at work. But you don’t remember why. You wonder why you’re paid, because you’d work for free. Work is fun. Like a puzzle. And you like puzzles. And singing songs. And just having fun. At least until your meds wear off.

03 – 12 Stealing office supplies provides temporary, short-term relief only. It’s not a cure. In other words, when you find yourself in a hole, put down the shovel. It’s time to update the resume and begin the search for new employment.

15 – 21 You regularly experience significant discomfort at work. Ditto the realization that sleep aids and anti-depressants only camouflage symptoms. Time to increase your dosage, find a good therapist and ramp-up your search.

24 – 33 Elvis isn’t the only one who’s left the building, is he? Let’s face it: at this point, quitting is just a formality. Like our favorite besotted and jump-suited singer, you left the building a long time ago.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Policy

Eighty-seven year-old Lorraine Bayless lived in the Glenwood Gardens senior care facility in Bakersfield, CA. She was there because she needed care.

More specifically, due to her advanced age, she was vulnerable and there was a great probability she would one day be in immediate need of emergency medical assistance.

That day arrived when Ms. Bayless collapsed last Tuesday.

A nurse at the facility called 9-1-1 and requested an ambulance. After dispatching a medical team, the operator asked the nurse to provide CPR in the interim.

That nurse refused.

The operator, seemingly the only party aware of the severity of the situation, attempted again to get the nurse to perform CPR. And again the nurse refused.

With her increasingly-desperate entreaties falling on deaf ears, the operator asked if there was someone—anyone—at the facility who would be willing to perform CPR.

The nurse's cold-blooded response was “Not at this time.”

The nurse cited corporate policy which states that in such instances, on-site personnel only call 9-1-1 and wait with the afflicted resident until emergency personnel arrive.

Which means there would never be a time when someone would be willing to perform CPR on Ms. Bayless.

The heartless, barren reality of this incident is that Ms. Bayless could have collapsed alone in a cheap apartment with the same result.

But with assisted living facilities often costing over a hundred-thousand dollars a year, shouldn’t people like Ms. Bayless have expected something more than “I’ll call 9-1-1”?

Like a little CPR if you drop, unconscious, to the floor?

The enormous sums of cash that collect where medicine and health care are practiced make these so-called providers popular targets for law suits—both legitimate and illegitimate.

And that concern is no doubt responsible for Glenwood Gardens’ “hands off” policy, which is best described as if we don’t touch her—they can’t sue.

Anyone still feel American business is being smothered by excessive government regulation?

Monday, February 18, 2013

It's All About You

I’m in the habit of making lists, and frequently post ones containing my favorite this or my favorite that. But that changes today. Today, the focus of attention is you.

Maybe it’s because the cable bill is unpaid. Perhaps a boss is in a protracted meeting. It could be simple boredom. But whatever the reason, people just like you distractedly stumble across this blog like unmarked stairs in a strip club.

And sometimes, you even stay.

Music-centric posts enjoy the widest readership, while my rants about unemployment, politics, guns and big business inexplicably fare less well. (Which goes a long way towards explaining why I'm not earning a living contributing to a big city newspaper's Op-Ed page.)

The staff here at The Square Peg deeply appreciates your attentions, and hopes at some point you found a kindred spirit, amusement or even a momentary distraction from yet another office e-mail marked 'urgent'.

That said, here are your ten favorite posts as of the afternoon of February 18, 2013, followed by the date of their posting. Views range from over four-hundred for number-one to just short of a hundred for number-ten.


01. Goodbye, Sir Charlie 9/24/10

02. My Favorite Concerts 1/28/11

03. The File Host as Cop 8/21/12

04. My Favorite CDs of 2010 1/4/11

05. The Bootleg 11/16/10

06. Jimmy Page Made Me A Beer Snob! 10/30/10

07. Oops!...I Did It Again 1/26/12

08. How Tea Baggers Inspired Me to Bridge the Enthusiasm Gap 10/12/10

09. My Favorite CDs of 2012 1/21/13

10. An Appreciation of the X-Files 12/30/11

Monday, January 21, 2013

My Favorite CDs of 2012

Another year. OK—so it wasn’t the greatest in history.

But what else besides music could reduce the horrors of long-term unemployment to mere eye-clawing agony? A wise man once said the only thing worse than having a job is not having one. But nothing's worse than a life without music.

On planet La Piazza Gancio, this was the year of the reunion.

Old favorites the dBs, the Blue Aeroplanes and Garbage all reconvened and released albums that were better than anyone had a right to expect. Graham Parker even reunited with the Rumour, with Three Chords Good the happy result.

Bobby Womack emerged from over a decade of self-imposed exile to release The Bravest Man in the Universe. Bonnie Raitt ended her seven-year hiatus with Slipstream, and the Rolling Stones celebrated their fiftieth year with their one-millionth best of and two pretty good new songs that had them sounding like they give a damn.

Even better, a long-forgotten documentary from a 1965 tour of Ireland was released.

Charlie Is My Darling is a powerful argument for the Stones nascent stage prowess, containing definitive versions of mid-sixties classics like “The Last Time”, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Time Is on My Side”. They proceed to tear through convincing covers of “Route 66”, “I’m Movin’ On” and “Down the Road Apiece” as well.

That Got Live If You Want It was released in lieu of this is a giant, staggering mystery. That Charlie Is My Darling is my archival live album of the year is not.

You might also want to check Graham Parker and the Rumour’s Live at Rockpalast, or Sonic Youth’s Smart Bar Chicago 1985.

As far as box sets go, The (English) Beat’s short but memorable career was at last immortalized on The Complete Beat, a five-disc offering featuring each of the band’s three albums plus a disc of remixes and another of Peel Session performances and a handful of recordings from 1982's Special Beat Service tour.

The remasters sparkle. The live recordings animate. I am overjoyed the Beat’s honking, propulsive ska is born anew.

Finally, here are my favorite albums of 2012:

1. Wussy – Strawberry If you’ve ever flattered a piece of music with the word unvarnished, Wussy has probably already found a home in your iPod, cell phone, hard drive or CD player. They work the same vein of rough-edged alt-rock and country first mined by the Mekons on Fear and Whiskey in 1985.

Distilled to its essence, Strawberry is all about the voices. Guitarist/vocalist Lisa Walker’s is capable of vinegar-soaked caterwauling in the manner of Exene Cervenka or Hope Nicholls one moment, and the plaintive, unembellished singing made famous by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch the next.

Wussy-founder Chuck Cleaver’s brings a whole ‘nother set of attributes to the proceedings. His sometimes wobbly voice has a knack for conveying the same fist-shaking sense of everyman outrage Joe Strummer’s did. It is highly effective, especially on Wussy’s barbed songs of betrayal.

Best of all, Walker and Cleaver’s harmonies never get within several area codes of an Auto-Tune, leaving no doubt these are the voices best to sing the songs of those left weeping in the bathroom of the bridal suite on the first night of the honeymoon—to quote “Waiting Room”.

They serve Strawberry’s forlorn beauty perfectly.

Check the aforementioned “Waiting Room” and “Wrist Rocket”.

2. Various – Time to Go: The Southern Psychedelic Moment 1981 – 86 Lying, as it does, closer to Antarctica than just about any other country definitely qualifies New Zealand as isolated. And that isolation has served its musical community well, as prevailing pop fashions arrive in a weakened state from the extended commute and submit to native influences without much of a fight.

Also in its favor is a modestly-sized population, which means conquering the New Zealand market offers similarly modest financial rewards. Without an enormous pot of gold at the end of the radio play rainbow, someone who doesn’t sound like the prevailing flavor of the month actually has a chance to be signed and subsequently heard.

Maybe Kiwis are just more creative than they’ve ever been given credit for. Maybe there’s something in the water. Maybe the Coriolis Effect has an especially powerful influence on music-making in the southern hemisphere. I don’t know.

What I do know is that Time to Go: The Southern Psychedelic Moment 1981 – 86, a collection of Flying Nun tracks recorded when it was the coolest indie label on the planet, is the first compilation I've installed on a year-end list in many, many years.

Come to think of it, it's the first one since Getting Older, which was another Flying Nun compilation.

See a pattern here?

Check Scorched Earth Policy’s hellish “Since the Accident” and the Stones’ “Down and Around”.

3. The dBs – Falling Off the Sky If it hadn’t been for Falling Off the Sky’s unsentimental opener “That Time Is Gone”, I never would have guessed it wasn’t 1982 anymore. The defining elements of the dBs converge in a perfect storm to make their early-eighties heyday seem only minutes—not decades—ago.

Sky bursts with the Beatlesque nuggets Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey so effortlessly craft, with “Before We Were Born”, “World to Cry” and “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore” the equal of anything from Stands for Decibles or Repercussion.

There was always a bit of the Lennon-McCartney dynamic in Holsapple and Stamey, and their yin and yang is in fine fettle. Stamey’s soft-focus psychedelia and Holsapple’s observant, tuneful pop combine to make Falling Off the Sky the best album Syd Barrett and Big Star never made.

I’m tempted to say it’s like finding a favorite t-shirt from your youth and discovering it still fits. But that would be reducing the dBs to relic status, which they clearly are not.

Check “That Time Is Gone” and “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore”.

4. The Bamboos – Medicine Man Melbourne has never been confused with Memphis or Detroit as a source of great R&B, so the fact that the perfectly-formed Bamboos originate from that Australian metropolis comes as a fairly large surprise.

But in the sound the truth is found, and Medicine Man stands up to any criteria you care to apply. Sublime, soulful and firmly in the pocket, the Bamboos’ fifth album is a triumph.

Artists plying their trade in classic genres like soul run the risk of being confined by them in equal measure to the degree that they are liberated by them. But in the Bamboos’ talented hands, soul is a launching pad—not a straitjacket.

This is 2012’s leftfield delight.

Check “Eliza” (which features a great vocal from Megan Washington) and album-closer “Window”.

5. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball After several mediocre efforts, it was a joy to have Springsteen release something as vital as Wrecking Ball. At an age when most men are checking their retirement portfolios, Springsteen rails against our fraud of a democracy and calls out those responsible.

But the radio-friendly production doesn’t always deliver the grit these songs demand, and as a consequence Wrecking Ball at times sounds strangely divorced from its lyrical content. It also couches its indignation by closing with two feel-good songs that feel tacked on at the suggestion of a focus group.

But like Neil Young’s Living with War, just hearing an arena-sized artist rail against the ruling class and their status quo and ask provocative questions with no easy or popular answers is enormously refreshing.

If only our elected representation were as brave.

Check “Death to My Hometown” and “Wrecking Ball”.

6. Garbage – Not Your Kind of People The curious 21st century odyssey of Garbage continues, with their fifth album finally appearing seven years after the fourth.

To longtime consumers of pop music, this is usually a red flag. Conflicting egos, writer’s block and disinterest are usually to blame for extended hiatuses, and none of them point the way to good records.

But this is Garbage’s best since 1998’s Version 2.0. Go figure.

Maybe it’s the lowered profile. (Not to be snarky, but it’s not 1998 anymore, is it?) Maybe it’s the lack of record company pressure. (Not Your Kind of People was released independently on their own label.)

Whatever the reason, People abounds with hooks, insistent sing-along choruses and Garbage’s trademark assortment of guitar flourishes and squiggly electronic bits.

Check “Blood for Poppies” and “Felt”.

7. Gary Clark, Jr. – Blak and Blu Gary Clark, Jr. is a prodigiously-talented guitarist and singer, the latest in a long string from Texas. Blessed with a voice that falls somewhere between John Legend and Stevie Wonder and the ability to scorch a fret board like the bastard son of Jimi Hendrix and T-Bone Walker, his future appears unlimited.

But as evidenced on Blak and Blu, such overweening talent can sometimes be a liability. When you can perform soul, hard rock, pop, blues and hip-hop, it’s a powerful temptation to do all of them—all the time. Where Clark’s major-label debut stumbles is in its embrace of this scattershot approach.

For every “Ain’t Messin’ Round” or “Numb” there’s “The Life” or “Things Are Changin’”. And over the course of a seventy-minute disc, the stylistic (and qualitative) diversity becomes wearying.

Still, it’s hard not to feel Clark has a very bright future.

Check album-opener “Ain’t Messin’ Round” and “Bright Lights”.

8. The Blue Aeroplanes – Anti-Gravity Bristol’s Blue Aeroplanes have mostly been flying under radar since a late-eighties, early-nineties flirtation with, if not quite fame, at least becoming less unknown. 1989’s Swagger and 1991’s Beatsongs briefly exposed them to college radio and things like MTV’s 120 Minutes, but by the release of 1994’s follow-up, Life Model, Nirvana had changed the landscape.

Gerard Langley has soldiered on, releasing albums, EPs and the odd compilation all along. Anti-Gravity, originally a 2011 vinyl-only release, doesn’t technically qualify as a twenty-twelve release, but the staff at The Square Peg are willing to take last year’s compact disc release date under advisement.

The Aeroplane’s alt folk-rock remains unique and unhurried, with the odd bit of cello or trumpet thrown in to good effect. It's not just their small-but-dedicated fan base that have kept these Aeroplanes aloft.

Check “Oak-Apple Day” and “My Old Haunts (Laughing With a Mouth of Blood)”.

9. Jack White – Blunderbuss Blunderbuss should’ve been an EP. What else to think about a thirteen-track collection that crashes like an over-leveraged hedge fund halfway in?

On the upside, those first seven tracks represent White’s most-inspired songwriting and playing in years. “Sixteen Saltines” and “Freedom at 21” crackle like fire. Ditto the staccato guitar that knifes its way through “Weep Themselves to Sleep”.

White is on such a roll here that even the clarinet which weaves through “Love Interruption” works.

But an awful cover of “I’m Shakin’” and a string of country-ish ballads that fall strangely flat (especially given White’s demonstrated affection for the genre) follow the prickly blast of what would’ve been—in the vinyl age—side one, doing them no favors in the process.

Check “Freedom at 21” and “Missing Pieces”.

10. Jessie Ware – Devotion This young singer made a pretty fair impression in her native England, where Devotion went to number-five on British LP charts. She’s also been nominated for two BRIT award as British Breakthrough of the year and as British Female Solo Artist of the year.

Even if you’re not the type who’s swayed by music industry awards, Devotion has plenty to offer.

Refreshingly devoid of the sort of hyper-arranged and hyper-produced product flooding the marketplace, Ware’s debut consists simply of one voice and spare, understated backing. Serving the song, and not adolescent attention spans, no longer seems to be a felony—at least in the UK.

Check “Wildest Moments” and “Taking in Water”.


Honorable Mentions:

Graham Parker & the Rumour - Three Chords Good

Knife & Fork – The Higher You Get, the Rarer the Vegetation

Dr. John – Locked Down

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Obnoxious: Defined

Six weeks ago, I wrote of the staggering ignorance and contempt Goldman-Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein holds for people who receive any monies/services/and or benefits he does not. Even when we pay for them.

Our failure to understand the consequences of our unbridled gluttony and its effect upon his starving Wall Street brethren has earned us his well-chronicled derision.

Now, former AIG CEO Maurice Greenberg (who asks that we call him “Hank”) seeks to outdo his Wall Street compadre by joining a lawsuit filed against the American government seeking redress for the “excessive” interest the government charged AIG for its 2008 bailout of the financial giant.

Yes—you read that correctly. No one snuck up behind you and bashed your skull in with a blunt instrument. Nor are you experiencing a cardiac episode. You are not on the verge of glimpsing the white light of the hereafter.

Folksy, regular guy Hank just wants to sue America “on behalf of” AIG stockholders who were made to shoulder the expense of the government’s (presumably excessive) rescue of the corporate parasite.

If this strikes you as suing the ambulance company because you made it to the hospital in time for life-saving surgery, you’re standing smack dab in the middle of the road to reason.

Let’s go over this one more time, so that even if you’re a cash-addled, Wall Street shithead you understand the lunacy of it:

Because AIG stockholders continue to earn money from their AIG shares (which, by the way, climbed 50% in value last year) thanks to the American taxpayer, Greenberg and AIG want to sue same because it cost them money to be brought back from the dead so that they might be allowed to live and continue making money.

For a change, the nation and its citizenry reacted with swift, bracing clarity, with the resounding sentiment being something along the lines of “Bite me, AIG! Fuck off, Greenberg!” Even officialdom weighed-in with uncharacteristically blunt remarks.

But if I have learned anything watching America disintegrate into a corpocracy, it is that the corporate sense of entitlement is like a virus; it will emerge and retreat until it has chanced upon the ideal set of circumstances and the perfect host which will allow it to thrive.

Failing a Republican president and/or a Republican-dominated Congress, it will wait until things quiet down and then find a back door and pending legislation to quietly attach itself to.

You just watch.