Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reasons to Be Cheerful

OK. I admit it. It's not all climate change deniers and distracted drivers and a government hellbent on sucking Wall Street's penis to the exclusion of legislating and leading in a semi-responsible way.

There are, in the words of the immortal Ian Dury, reasons to be cheerful.

1.) I was able to locate a liquor department stocking New Belgium Brewing Company's Frambozen, a brown ale and raspberry concoction far better-tasting than you might at first be inclined to believe.

Upon my first taste of the stuff, I wasn't especially impressed and relegated it to the “interesting” category. But by bottle number-six, I was on the verge of proposing marriage.

So yes, I search high and low for Frambozen at Christmastime. You should, too.

2.) The New York Knicks are 5 and 27. The Los Angeles Lakers 10 and 21.

Nothing like seeing the league's most-dysfunctional franchise continue to flounder under their Hall of Fame opportunist GM. The realization that former GM Isiah Thomas couldn't make things any worse than they already are at Madison Square Garden is staggering.

And the Lakers? I confess to getting a kick out of watching the league's most-entitled team suffer the ravages of old age and free-agent defection. 

As a card-carrying member of N.C.F.K. (Never cared for Kobe), I'm not shedding many tears at the sight of Bryant starring in the role of former superstar hobbled by injuries and in the twilight of his career.

True, the record will show that Bryant scored more points than M. Jordan, but another will show that insofar as championships were concerned, the Black Mamba did less with more.

3.) The 2014/15 Chicago Bulls, custodians of a tidy 22 and 10 record which places them atop the Central Division.

After impressive victories over Memphis, Toronto and Washington and another Christmas Day over the Los Angeles franchise formerly known as contenders, the Bulls appear to be rounding into shape.

Best of all, Derrick Rose looks like his old self, driving the lane and giving the once-anemic offense options. With free-agent acquisition Pau Gasol playing like he's in his mid-twenties and the bench once again full of characters ready, willing and able to defend and even pad leads, the Bulls look awesome and formidable.

4.) Finally, there is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I don't see much live music anymore, which is mostly a byproduct of my limited income. But even if things were different, I'm still not sure I'd be plopping down three-hundred bucks to see the likes of 2014-era U2.

So as an early X-mas gift to my mate, I bought a pair of tickets and we made the trip downtown to Orchestra Hall to see the CSO play a program featuring Haydn (93rd symphony), Strauss (Don Juan) and Beethoven (7th symphony).

Let me first say that classical music benefits more than any other when heard live. I'm still waiting for the recording that captures the transparency and richness of an orchestra in full flower.

Whew.

Of course, great seats don't hurt. Neither does a little Ludwig Van (as Alex in A Clockwork Orange was wont to call the estimable Mr. Beethoven).

Without the vocabulary and experience of a seasoned listener, I'll just say it was wondrous, with textures, sounds and melodies that enchanted and excited and got my soul righted.

More than any other piece performed that night, Beethoven's seventh was an orgy of mood and sound, fully animated by what is still one of the world's leading orchestras. I was agog.

And a post-concert walk through Millennium Park, with its backdrop of skyscrapers and Christmas lights, was a silent night-styled treat. It was the perfect coda to an evening of powerful music.

So life could be worse.

I remain grateful for Stand 'N Stuff taco shells. Express check-out lanes. The chime that goes off when I leave my headlights on. The fact that I am not legally or biologically related to anyone named Kardashian. Elizabeth Warren. And the continued functioning of my overworked and much-abused ears.

But life could be a good deal better, too. Which is what I'm hoping the next calendar holds for me and you.

Happy New Year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Am I the Only One Who Sees the Ghost?

Dear readers, I'm going to ask you for a favor.

I want you to go to the biggest, most opulent homes in your community and leave $10,000.00 on each of their doorsteps.

That's right. $10,000.00. On the doorstep.

Then I want you to write out a check to the following: Google, Goldman-Sachs, Exxon, British Petroleum, Apple, Microsoft and Citibank for—you guessed it—10K.

Stay with me. Just one more step.

Could you please petition your congressional representation (yes, you still have some—sort of) and the president to imbue the nation's largest and most powerful corporations with absolute power?

Thank you.

OK. Sounds crazy, doesn't it? 

At your most civil, you might be thinking, well, what's he thinking? Did he have a bowl of bad chili? Forget to take his meds? Tell me he's not experimenting with meth!

At your most uncivil, you're speculating into which bodily orifice I've inserted my head.

Fair enough.

Suffice to say I'm in a bad way. Let me tell you why.

In 2008, our economy collapsed after years of abuse and neglect. It wasn't because of ignorance, as you could rightly claim with the 1929 crash that kick-started the Great Depression.

No, this crash was premeditated. Enacted with malice aforethought. It was manufactured by jackals who purchased the prostitutes which inhabit the U.S. Congress.

Seduced with promises of unlimited campaign financing, our mealy-mouthed elected representation then repealed the very legislation meant to protect us from the ravages of unregulated bankers and drooling Wall Street carnivores.

Before being neutered in 1999, the Glass-Steagall Act had protect the American economy for sixty-six years. But it also kept Wall Street in shackles. 

Dozens of billions were made instead of hundreds of billions. Some chief executive officers were forced to drive two-year-old Ferraris. Bonuses that rendered Major League Baseball payrolls chump change weren't even a glimmer in Wall Street's eye.

You can see why something had to change.

It shouldn't be a surprise that a Republican, Phil Gramm of Texas, introduced the bill that would play such a large part in unraveling our economy. Two more Republicans, Jim Leach of Iowa and Thomas Bliley, Jr. of Virginia, quickly co-sponsored it.

After tossing the public a bone which amounted to bringing the woman you've just raped a bouquet of roses, the Senate and House passed the final version of the Financial Services Modernization Act that November, with President Clinton signing it into law on November 12, 1999.

(Do you remember what you did on that date? Ironic how an event which will one day upend your life can pass by practically unnoticed, isn't it?)

It's worth noting that the bill received very little opposition. 

In the Senate, 98.1% of voting Republicans and 84.4% of voting Democrats favored the bill. It was much the same story in the House, with 97.6% and 75.2% of voting Republicans and Democrats, respectively, approving.

Only Michigan Democrat John Dingell voiced concern, exhibiting an uncanny prescience when he stated on C-SPAN that after creating too-big-to-fail banks, passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley bill would one day necessitate a federal bailout.

It is remarkable that so few questioned legislation which would undo protections enacted in the aftermath of the worst financial crisis in American history. Protections whose effectiveness was measured in the six-decade absence of home-wrecking financial cataclysms since they became law.

Combined with the Riegel-Neal Act of 1994 (also signed into law by President Clinton—who says Democrats aren't business-friendly?), the environment in which banks and financial services entities operated in was changing rapidly. 

Everyone was going to get bigger and richer and less-regulated. Yay!

Banks and investment houses no longer had to adhere to bothersome restrictions dictating how and with whom they did business. They could co-mingle in any way they pleased. 

At its essence, the Financial Services Modernization Act meant that banks and investments firms didn't have to bother with condoms anymore.

By the ninth anniversary of its passage, the U.S. economy was in a shambles. An unholy trinity of mortgage brokers, investment firms and gargantuan banks, let off the leash of regulation, had sodomized anything and everything they could lay their hands—and other body parts—on.

The economic equivalent of unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases came with an enormous price tag—one which was borne by the tax-paying public. Congress fixed Wall Street in a single weekend, earmarking 700 billion dollars to bail out the very firms whose deregulation-inspired recklessness had destroyed the economy.

(Permit me a moment to point out how cries of “socialism!” accompany such aid when it is directed at individuals, but an amount which would fund the SNAP program for a decade was given away in a matter of days.)

Fast forward to Fall, 2014 and the creation of a new national budget. 

With the nation still mired in a slow-motion recovery, Wall Street feels put-upon. This despite a robust four-year run that finds the DOW, which bottomed-out in March of 2009 at 6,626, having more than doubled, closing on December 5th at 17,958.

For the mathematically-challenged, that's an increase of 63.1%. Clearly, their economy is doing just fine.

But it's not enough.

The creation of a consumer protection agency and the Dodd-Frank financial reform left Wall Street and our corporate banks feeling picked-on. Unloved. Unappreciated. Why hadn't we cuddled them and kissed them goodnight?

Never mind that the consumer protection agency isn't headed by firebrand Elizabeth Warren because the banks and Wall Street were afraid she might actually do something, or that the Dodd-Frank bill was drastically watered-down to ensure quick passage by an obstreperous Congress.

No, the petulant and entitled product of unbridled wealth and privilege wants more.

Step number-one is the removal of safeguards which were designed to limit our liability in the event Wall Street and Citibank couldn't control themselves. Translated, we (that's you and me) are now liable if Wall Street and our ginormous banks get too much slobber on the steering wheel and lose control of the car.

I'll let CNN explain:

“At the center of the dispute are arcane financial instruments known as loan swaps. Those are contracts between banks used to spread the risk in their loans and trades.

A rule that would have limited the use of those swaps by commercial banks (think Citigroup (C) or JPMorgan Chase (JPM)) was essentially stripped out of the law during budget negotiations in recent days.
Swaps were ground zero of the 2008 meltdown of the global financial system. That's because banks had bundled risky mortgage loans and sold them as bonds. And to make the bonds more appetizing to investors, swaps were created as a form of insurance that the bonds would pay as promised.

So when the housing bubble burst and so many people couldn't afford their mortgage payments anymore, those bonds blew up. And the banks and firms like AIG (AIG) that held the suddenly-toxic swaps contracts needed bailouts.”

And later:

“One provision of Dodd-Frank to protect taxpayers was a rule saying major banks couldn't use their normal commercial banking operation to create, buy or trade these kinds of swap contracts. Instead those contracts had to be held by separate entities whose assets were not insured by the Federal Reserve or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

"If Wall Street banks want to gamble, Congress should force them to pay for their losses, and not put the taxpayers on the hook for another bailout," said a letter signed this week by both one of the most conservative senators, David Vitter, and one of the most liberal, Sherrod Brown.

Even though Dodd-Frank was signed into law more than four years ago, the rules to limit banks gambling with taxpayer-backed money are not yet completely in place.”

So. You get this, right? 

If Citibank and Wall Street fuck-up, it's on us. Their losses will be insured by the same people who insure your bank account—the taxpayer-funded FDIC. Which is another way of saying we the people are on the hook for it.

It's called gaming the system. Casino-owners in Las Vegas will throw you out on your ass and put you on their permanent shit list if they catch you doing this, but in Washington D.C. it amounts to following best practice.  

I'd be fine with this if we also shared in Wall Street's gains. But strangely enough, those will remain in the private sector. Only their losses will find their way to the public sector. 

Privatized gains, publicized losses. Still think the President runs the country?

Call America what you want. Just don't call it a democracy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

321,000

As if you could forget, it's that time of year again.

No, I'm not referring to Christmas. I'm referring to the annual November jobs report, which nearly every year portrays a robust economy firing on all cylinders like a V8 under full throttle.

It's economist's version of a baby animal story; as full of fluff as Good Morning America.

This year, the Department of Labor reported that 321,000 jobs were created in the United States of America. By almost any measure, that's a lot of jobs.

Except in a country with 320 million people saddled with a moribund economy which continues to seek an order of protection from the Great Recession of 2008.

What the Department of Labor's report fails to tell us it that approximately 320,000 of those jobs are either seasonal, part-time, or both.

In other words, it's Christmas, stupid!

Yet the media continues to gush, swarming over the news like kids at a free cotton candy store. As it did last November and the November before that. 

And why not? Consumer confidence is a critical measure of the economy, and if people feel things are looking up they'll be more willing to open up those wallets and spend, spend, spend.

And that means more advertising revenue and more tax revenue for the selfsame media and government who told you everything is just great. 

I think I smell a great big win-win! Yay!

A convenient side-effect of this news is that when jobs are created the unemployment rate goes down. But you should know that the government has a very generous definition of 'employed'. 

It has almost nothing to do with the notion of being self-supporting that 'employed' implies.

For instance, the government considers me employed. This despite the fact I can't afford an apartment within several zip codes of where I work and am unable to find enough hours in the week to accommodate the number of crappy jobs I'd need to support myself.

The government also considers a single mom employed as a Wal-Mart cashier employed, even though she's part-time and dependent on multiple government programs for her survival--and that of her kids. 

It considers busboys, convenience store cashiers and CNAs employed in spite of hours worked and dollars earned. 

In other words, the Department of Labor job report is like your resume. It's formatted to present the best-possible picture, not necessarily the most-honest one.

I'm not against good news. I'm against spin and massaging the facts and painting a picture which says everything is okay when it isn't.

The fact remains that 321,000 temporary jobs aren't going to change anything. Except a politician's resume.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Michael Brown and Ferguson

I am not convinced that Michael Brown is a martyr. 

This in spite of the fact that I can't pick up a newspaper, turn on a radio or watch a TV and consume a story about him which doesn't contain the phrase “unarmed black teenager.”

Michael Brown was a teenage male. Not only that, he was a big teenaged male. And as teenagers are wont to do, he was capable of acting colossally stupid.

One day, Brown got it into his head that it would be a good idea if he went to the local convenience store and stole stuff. And when a clerk intervened, it would be an even better idea if he used his enormous height and weight advantage to push the clerk around.

Upon watching the video from the store's security camera, it is clear that Brown was feeling his oats, and received a powerful sense of superiority by exploiting this size advantage. 

It isn't very difficult to imagine him carrying this swollen sense of self into the surrounding neighborhood, more than willing to challenge anything and anyone who got in his way.

Yes, this is supposition. I was not there. But I was once a teenaged male, and am familiar with the heightened sense of invincibility they can entertain.

Again provoked by some combination of an accomplice, music and/or an intoxicant (his autopsy revealed the presence of marijuana), he eventually decided to challenge a cop. Which also isn't a very good idea—especially if you have something to hide.

(Not to be flippant, but this is precisely why there are laws in the U.S. Constitution which forbid teenagers from holding elected office.)

What happened next isn't clear. But at some point in their confrontation, a police officer named Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown six times.

Yes, you could argue that being young and stupid isn't a crime. And you'd be right. 

Except when it becomes a matter of life and death, which it would be if it is ever proven conclusively that Brown attempted to grab Wilson's gun. And given his previous actions, such an act isn't entirely inconceivable, is it? 

In my humble opinion, Michael Brown was spoiling for a fight.

Let me say that I don't have unconditional love for police. As in any other profession, there are good cops and there are bad cops. And unfortunately, I have experience with both. And with the unforgettable sense of betrayal you receive when confronted with the latter.

But I harbor no love (much less unconditional) for people who feel entitled to go on rampages, either. I don't care what Brown stole or how old he was. To put it nicely, on this day he was acting like a shit.

One of the immutable tragedies of life is that one error in judgment, one mistake can be all it takes to bring said life to an end.

In a perfect world Michael Brown never would have felt the need to push the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior to fulfill a momentary need to fuck with people. And officer Wilson would have pulled a taser on Brown instead of a gun.

But the world is so very far from perfect, isn't it?

I'm convinced this was the tragic confluence of a young kid engorged with feelings of invincibility and a cop not entirely patient or understanding of young black men.

There is much to regret.

I'm dismayed by officer Wilson's statement that his conscience is clear. That he has no regrets. I am also dismayed by the black community's candidate for martyrdom, given the marginal behavior exhibited by Michael Brown in the hours before his death.

Having gained at least a partial understanding of what discrimination is like via long-term unemployment, I understand only too well the helplessness and rage that well-up when repeatedly confronted with blind, inaccurate, knee-jerk characterizations.

But burning and looting your neighborhood isn't the answer.

My hope on this Thanksgiving is that one day we will find what is.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Speechless

In that peculiar way scorched-earthers have, it has been decided the Toyota Prius is at the root of all they consider evil, and so must heap scorn and derision upon it lest there one day be a greenhouse gas shortage on planet earth.

I mean, just imagine the lines, right?

The sour personality types who would feel this way about a car which lessens a problem as opposed to contributing to it are, among other things, tragically misled. 

They are tools of the corporation, the pathetic byproduct of marketing campaigns which have succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations at embedding between our ears the idea that we are what we own.

Given a choice between life and lifestyle, they obediently and dutifully choose lifestyle. They embrace that which those of us with functioning brains realize is killing us. 

The most obstinate call themselves coal rollers, and modify their vehicle's fuel delivery system to oversupply the engine, resulting in clouds of thick, black exhaust they jokingly refer to as Prius Repellent.

Their desire to drive these vehicles is as juvenile as it is short-sighted.

But the acting out doesn't stop there. They must ridicule those actively participating in a better future. Social media is the obvious choice, and the comments are staggering in their ignorance.

One remark which stood out was the response to a guy who enjoyed the hushed responses of his hybrid, to which a (presumed) coal roller replied “Someone buy that dude a skirt.”

I ask you: could the most ardent, man-hating feminist trivialize men and masculinity so completely and so successfully?

Thanks, bro.

Sure, the fantasy of being behind the wheel of a powerful sports car as it zooms to one-hundred plus miles-per-hour is a powerful one. It is one that has admittedly possessed this car lover for decades.

Yet one has only to venture out onto our traffic-clogged streets to know it is just that—a fantasy. 

Where I live, it seems every resident is able to drive two or three cars simultaneously. The rage and frustration the ensuing congestion provokes isn't exactly conducive to good health or productivity.

Given this undeniable reality and the mountain of evidence supporting global warming, we are left with little choice but to accept the development and implementation of clean, autonomous cars if we are to have a future.

I'll admit the better-to-die-on-your-feet-than-live-on-your-knees dynamic has its applications. But is unswerving allegiance to the internal combustion engine really one of them?

This would be fine if the climate change deniers who brook this kind of thinking were only guaranteeing a world rich in CO2 for themselves, but they're not. 

By moving 'senseless' past any known definition, they not only wish to destroy their future—which is fine—but yours as well.

Selfish self-destructiveness has no place in a democracy.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Giving You the Business

In a perverse and ironic sort of way, I am grateful for the business world. 

Just when I think I've seen and heard it all, and that my sense of wonder is hopelessly atrophied, a study issued by the National Retail Federation appears which provokes peals of healthful and much-needed laughter.

Excuse the outdated cultural references, but I find it funnier than George Carlin, Monty Python, Firesign Theater and George Bush number-two combined.

In response to government data which the Federation feels unfairly skews retail pay downwards, their report attempts to present the retail sector as the creator of good-paying jobs which offer Americans an alternative to wage-slave sustenance and which bolster our flagging middle class.

See what I mean?

The Federation's second punchline is the assertion that the average retail employee makes thirty-thousand dollars a year. The Federation claims these employees earn an average of $2,582 per month, or $30,984 per year.

But you should know there are more strings attached to their definition of 'retail employee' than on all the helium balloons festooning graduation, retirement, anniversary and birthday parties the world over.

The Federation's numbers are based on something called a “stable” employee, which is an employee employed for three months of a calender quarter. If this fuzzy indistinct-ness leaves you with more questions than answers, feel free to join the club.

The next time you're in an expansive mood and wish to share your mirth, relay this information to a sales clerk, stock person or cashier employed by J.C. Penney’s or Home Depot. 

I am positive they will find it equally-mirthful.

Because I am long-term unemployed, I have recent experience in retail. I have that experience because retail is one of the few sectors desperate-enough to risk employing people like me. They are desperate for a reason. And it isn't because they're doling out 30K salaries. 

Despite fulfilling the Federation's dodgy definition of stable, I didn't earn half of what the Federation says I should have. And there are reasons for that, too.

First off, aside from managerial personnel, no one in retail works full-time. It is practically against the law. Secondly, with certain rare exceptions (The Container Store and CostCo come to mind), wages are low.

I made $8.40 an hour as a cashier at a local Home Depot. I made even less as a supermarket checker in a Milwaukee suburb. Adjusted for inflation, that didn't even equal the $2.00 an hour I earned washing cars at a Pontiac dealer while in high-school.

Unless you're a clerk at Harry Winston's, the only way you're going to clear 30K a year in retail is by working three jobs.

The Federation goes on to add that if you're lucky enough to fall within the 25 to 54 age group, retail is an even more splendiferous fount of riches. Those folk enjoy an average monthly bounty of $3,198, which adds up to a very pleasant $38,376 per year.

There's an old adage in academia that says PhD stands for piled higher and deeper. Evidently, the National Retail Federation's report hasn't reached them yet.

In cash-starved post-recession America, how is it that oceans of retail positions go unfilled in the face of such economic largesse? Like my earliest attempts at arithmetic, it just doesn't add up.

The truth is, the Federation's "report" is flimsy and transparent PR which is the product of an entitled entity feeling a little put out because we don't show it enough love. 

My heart bleeds.

Permanently marked-down employees aren't a big, gift-wrapped expression of love? 

How about the ability of a private business to shift a worker's housing, medical and food expenses onto the public as they steadfastly refuse to hire full-timers or pay their workers a living wage in order to keep their billionaire shareholders happy?

It adds up to big, gigantic wealth creation. Big, gigantic government-subsidized profits for businessmen renowned for their dislike of socialism and *cough* big government.

And still it's not enough. Like the supposedly entitled employees they hold such contempt for, business wants more. And when it has that it wants more. It is never enough. 

It is not enough that we have government-subsidized employees working for private businesses. We must love those businesses, too.

And lastly, we must never, ever tell the truth. Apparently, parasites have feelings, too.

Like I said, pretty funny.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Under the Influence

I suppose this is as good a time as any to ruminate on the suspension given Colts owner Jim Irsay by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Timing, it is said, is everything. And Irsay's stunk. He had the bad luck to cross the commissioner's radar in the wake of the Ray Rice kerfuffle, and with opening day just a few days away, there was no way Goodell was going to go through that again.

So while Rice was suspended two games for knocking out his intended and dragging her about their hotel by the hair, Irsay was suspended for six and fined half a million dollars because he:

a.) Wore non-approved NFL gear
b.) Let Peyton Manning walk
c.) Drove while intoxicated
d.) Failed to renew his subscription to the NFL Network

If you guessed c, you are correct.

(An exception will be made if you chose b and reside in Indiana.)

OK. Don't get me wrong—driving while tanked is plenty serious. But not exponentially more serious than dragging your girlfriend around by the hair after you've introduced her face to your NFL running back-sized fist.

Furthermore, I am the very last citizen of the United States to come to the defense of the very wealthy, particularly those who did little more than pop out of the right, er well, you know.

But I am suffering from DWI fatigue.

Having re-invented myself a little over a year ago as a bus driver, I now log about eight-hundred miles a week. Which works out to forty-thousand miles a year—give or take a construction detour or two. And let me tell you: I don't see many drunks. (This was true even when I was younger and drove more at night.)

What I do see are lots of distracted drivers. Men, women, adults, teens and in-betweens. They're all over. Like a plague.

I have lost count of the drivers who absentmindedly drift across lane dividers and lane markings into mine. Or who fail to stop at stop signs. Or the mobile Shakespeares so engrossed in composing life-changing texts they don't notice the light has changed from red to green.

They are everywhere. Everyday.

Yes, there was a time when chronic alcoholics who got behind the wheel needed to be reigned in. Needed to be given something besides a cup of joe down at the local PD.

But I am thrilled to report that as a society, we get it. Driving under the influence is a bad thing. In fact, according to MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), incidents of drunk driving are half of what they were in 1980.

Despite this, our media, our law-givers and our law enforcers continue to reinforce the impression it is the most-serious crime an individual can commit. It certainly is the highest-profile one.

Which brings me back to Jim and Roger.

Having erred so badly on the Ray Rice case, Goodell followed our lead and used the reliable whipping post of DWI as a public relations tool to erase any doubts that he is, indeed, a tough guy intent on eradicating bad behavior in his NFL.

(At least when he can—players who offend for the first time are only levied a comparatively paltry fine of fifty-thousand dollars.)

It smacks of piling on.

Thirty years on, I wish we'd devote the same resources to distracted driving that we do to driving under the influence. And while we're at it, get manufacturers all-in for the public good.

For instance, I am unable to make an input on the GPS unit in my bus while it is moving. Using motion sensors to similarly disable cell phones, tablets and any other device in a moving car would be a great start.

A car driven by a distracted driver is just as lethal as one driven by a drunk. And sadly, they're far more prevalent. It's time to look up from our screens, recognize it and adjust our policies, enforcement and public awareness accordingly.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Ray Guy

Hearty, neon-lit, back-slapping congratulations to newly-minted Hall of Famer Ray Guy. He's the first player admitted to the Football Hall of Fame as a punter, and it's an honor as deserved as it is overdue.

I'm mystified why it took fifty-plus years for the Hall of Fame to recognize a punter. It's ludicrous that the National Football League would establish the position and then ignore those who excelled at it.

If you've ever been a football fan and watched the game, the notion that kickers and the units they perform on (called special teams) are inconsequential is ignorant. I've forgotten how many times I saw momentum shift after a well-placed punt pinned the opposition behind its ten-yard line and save a stalled offense's bacon.

It's a game-changer in the same sense that an interception, a fumble recovery or even a touchdown is. And Ray Guy changed a lot of games.

Don't think a punter or special teams are important? Ask the coach of the team that struggles in those areas. None other than Hall of Fame coach John Madden said Ray Guy was often their “best defensive player—by far.”

It's no coincidence that the Chicago Bears 2013 defensive woes occurred after losing special teams coach Dave Toub. Under his tutelage, the unit was regularly one of the NFL's best, and masked many weaknesses.

But this is about Ray Guy, not the Chicago Bears.

Knowing the worst outcome of a failed drive was a Ray Guy punt left the Raiders offense free to operate wide-open, in the same sense that a basketball guard can gamble on defense when he knows there's a powerful, shot-blocking center behind him.

On a team as dominant as the nineteen-seventies Oakland Raiders were, that was not insignificant.

Now that the Football Hall of Fame has finally addressed its arrogant and exclusionary history of denying punters (and while I'm at it—place kickers) admittance, here's hoping it can look back and give those who contributed to the game it celebrates their rightful due.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Getting Concealed Carry-ed Away


People buy guns for two reasons. They want to kill or be a hero. Sometimes they want to be both.

They fantasize about home invaders, preferably minority ones. “I was defending my family!” they rage in response to some vile court-appointed defense attorney's questioning as a sympathetic jury of their peers looks on.

Afterwards, they are found innocent by reason of self-defense.

Of course, the reality is far different. Kindly ignore the fact (and it is a statistically-verifiable fact) that as a gun owner you are more likely to have that gun pointed at you than you are to point it at a drug-crazed home invader intent on raping your daughter.

According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, twenty-two times more likely.

But the Brady Campaign probably strikes you as a bunch of knee-jerk libtards spouting off about the same crap they always spout off about. But analysis after analysis tells the same story. A gun in the home is more likely to be used on you than by you.

Unfortunately, fantasies are like Bruce Willis. They die hard.

And thanks to the fear-driven campaign to permit concealed carry, those fantasies now have a new stage upon which to play: everywhere. Why limit your role-playing to the bedroom? Why not take it out in public where it belongs?

I mean, shouldn't a population that becomes murderously angry at being demoted or not getting laid or even being cut-off in traffic not only be armed to the teeth but have unlimited freedom to squeeze off a round or two if these touchy feely types feel threatened?

Sounds like a considered and sober strategy to me.

Here's a hint of what's to come.

In Crestwood, IL., a customer approaching an AT&T store noticed an armed robbery in progress. He was able to alert potential customers behind him and keep them from entering the store.

So far so good, right?

But instead of dialing 911, our wanna-be cop (who is fully licensed and approved for concealed carry) decides to play hero. He watches the felon exit the rear of the store and gives chase. He fires his gun, unaware that a police officer has responded to the scene. The officer consequently has to abandon his pursuit and take cover, unsure of whether the felon has an accomplice.

You can see where this is headed.

Live crime scenes are by their very nature chaotic. Even the best and most well-trained professionals get confused and disoriented and make mistakes. Imagine what untrained-and-armed amateurs bring to the table.

If you need a recipe for disaster, here it is.

Instead of just one bone-headed wanna-be cop, imagine six. As the false sense of security offered by concealed carry drives its popularity in our frightened and twitchy population, this is what law enforcement will confront. (Assuming, of course, police are even summoned. It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to see the concealed carry set eventually assuming the role of jury as well.)

Thank god for the Affordable Care Act. We're going to need it.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sometimes You Just Can't Win. Even When You Do.


Poor Ivory Mitchell.

After buying lottery scratch-off tickets since Richard Nixon's second term, he thought he'd finally hit the jackpot. After buying five of the things July 20th, two indicated he had won $1,000. Nice payoff after forty-two years of playing, isn't it?

But wait. The agency that runs the Wisconsin lottery is claiming that the tickets are defective. Misprints that aren't worth the cardboard they're printed on. In a show of bureaucratic benevolence, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue has offered to reimburse Mr. Mitchell the ten-bucks it cost him to be a kinda sorta but-not-quite winner.

Ivory Mitchell is a sixty-four year-old retired welder who undergoes dialysis and is living off of disability, and who had planned to use the winnings to repair his roof, gutters and a fence.

It might just be me, but wouldn't it be cool if some combination of the Wisconsin lottery and the vendor who supposedly misprinted the tickets somehow managed to come up with the two-grand that would make such a difference at one end and barely register at the other?

I'm guessing that after forty-two years of purchases, all concerned have turned a very tidy profit on Mr. Mitchell.

Just a thought.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Thomas Jefferson - Reloaded


Thomas Jefferson's 'tree of liberty' remark was long-ago co-opted by conservatives as justification for stuffing every conceivable nook and cranny of our nation with as many guns as humanly possible.

(I mean, you just never know, do you?)

But Eric Zorn, in a typically-thoughtful column in last Friday's Chicago Tribune, responded to this misappropriation by putting a new wrinkle in Jefferson's quote to better-reflect the sad ideal prized by firearm advocates in even-sadder twenty-first century America.

Instead of finishing with “...the blood of patriots and tyrants”, Zorn put it thusly:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of innocent school children.

Which just about says it all, doesn't it?

Good going, Mr. Zorn.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Let Us Now Praise the Onion

Before there was a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert, the task of presenting and parodying the news fell to a small publication founded by some college kids in Madison, Wisconsin in 1988.

The Onion took off fairly quickly, expanding its distribution to Midwest college towns and the great city of Chicago within a matter of years.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In its twenty-five years of existence, the Onion has routinely poked fun at the hapless, embarrassed the deserving and given those whose outlooks are perhaps infected with a touch of jaundice good, hearty belly laughs.

But in the wake of the tragic Isla Vista shootings, no media outlet better crystalized the event and the raging debate surrounding it than the story in the May 27th issue, which featured this headline:

'No Way To Prevent This' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens

Yeah.

Just.

Fucking.

Brilliant.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Cure for Sanity


Sometimes, I get really nervous. I think that somehow, the second amendment just isn’t there for me anymore. That the president or the government will burst through the door and take away my gun.

And then I won’t be able to breathe. And that anyone who wanted to could just get me. That I won’t be able to do anything to defend my stuff.

But then events like Friday night in California happen, and I know the second amendment is gonna be okay. Nothing like some retard going off half-cocked to make everybody paranoid and want to rush out and buy a gun of their very own.

It's too bad that not everyone is as well-balanced and responsible a gun owner as me, but that’s just the price we have to pay for being able to defend our stuff. And ourselves.

Life is war. Collateral damage is a fact. Get used to it.

I mean, I’ve never killed anyone with my gun. So why should I have to give it up? Do you have to pay for car insurance even if you’ve never been in accident? Of course not.

Oh wait. You do. Scratch that.

The important thing is that our right to own a gun has NOT been compromised by those goddamned liberal baby killers! That responsible folk like you and me can still arm ourselves against our oppressors.

And let’s admit it—who isn’t one?

The government. The president. Liberals. Vegetarians. Minorities. Climate change believers. Left-handers. That guy in the grey Prius.

You got a minute? He was looking at me funny—I’m sure of it. I'm just gonna circle round the block and double-check.

OK. Where was I? Oh yeah. Every day I realize I need to protect myself. That you need to protect yourself.

You just never know when someone out there has a gun.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Frozen


This isn’t about the latest hit musical from Disney. It’s about a life. A life on hold. A life, well, frozen.

U-Haul calls them rooms. I call them storage units. In them sits the difference between life before and life after the Great Recession of 2008. They’re three-dimensional barometers of the downsizing the long-term unemployed have absorbed.

Ours is filled with furniture, appliances, clothing and kitchen ware; the list goes on and on and on. These are the things my mate and I hold onto. The things we have invested with the hope that one day we will have use for them again.

Call them objects of faith.

Putting them on e-Bay or giving them away or throwing them out would be to acknowledge that things aren’t going to change. And we can’t do that. Not yet.

So we pay a monthly storage fee equivalent to two tanks of gasoline (and this is with a discount from a friend who’s an employee at the facility) to indulge our fantasy. Or deny the future. I can’t figure out which.

I touch the sofa that used to be the centerpiece of our living room. Thumb the designer shirts which no longer fit because of my stress-fueled consumption of junk food. I gaze at the washing machine and drier we picked out, and wonder if they would even work after being inactive for so long.

I realize, ironically-enough, that I would actually enjoy putting a load of wash in them, if only to enjoy the significance of such an act. I also realize how unlikely this is to happen.  
Perhaps this is a tomb.

I retrieve the book I came for, pull down the metal door, secure the padlock and head to the front office where I pay the rent. 

Hope, for better or worse, springs eternal.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Waiting on a Friend

Sometimes, everything is difficult. Even your friends.

It should have been a good thing when Lucky called Sunday night. It should have been an opportunity to catch up on each other’s lives. Share a laugh. Commiserate about work and aging parents. A pause in the rat race.

But Lucky is feeling the sting of late middle-age. And with it, the realization that whatever he hasn’t done will, at this point, likely remain that way until death. It has its talons deep into his flesh, especially in this, the age of diminished opportunities.

While marveling at his quarter-century with a single employer, I realize he was hiding more than anything. A college degree should have been a fresh start. But there was a fear in Lucky, a fear of leaving his comfort zone and trying something new.

Despite what we say on Facebook and on Twitter, change provokes anxiety in all of us. But in Lucky’s case, it was something more. It was paralyzing. This sense of life having passed him by has curdled into something far-uglier. Anger. Rage. Jealousy.

Sunday night, it careened into finger-pointing and accusations. He brought up a long-ago dinner out he paid for, a dinner I had in no way, shape or form solicited. "It's on me" he said with a casual wave of his hand.

Now I know better. It was on me—for accepting it. It made me a parasite in Lucky's eyes.

It was a shot so cheap it deserved shelf-space at Wal-Mart.

Thankfully, there's another side to the story.

Understanding is an awesome responsibility. Sometimes, it asks us to tolerate the intolerable. In this case, knowing intimately the depths of my friend’s discontent made it difficult to respond as I normally would.

But you can only do so much. You can only listen and try to empathize and offer the hoped-for solace of shared feelings and experiences.

It's not always enough.

Like my friend, I am in many ways embittered and sour. I struggle to subvert my anger and cynicism and jealousy at those around me who I perceive to have better, more-fulfilling lives. At those who, through no fault of their own, haven’t suffered the ravages of the Great Recession to the extent I have.

But Lucky left me something. Unintentional as it was, Lucky gave me a refresher course in what we become when the worst elements of our personality get the best of us. How we sound when the howling rage of regret takes center stage.

And how we so often (and so unwittingly) can subject those who care about us most to the worst we have to offer.

It was a cold, hard look in the mirror.

And that may be the greatest gift friendship has to offer.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Bronze Medal at the Winter Olympics

Winter supposedly ends in a few minutes. I'm here to write its obituary.

It was the third-snowiest in Chicago history. And it doesn’t matter if you use the traditional measure (the duration of the winter solstice) or the meteorological one (the period between December first and the last day of February), it snowed a lot.

This near-record snowfall was accomplished without the benefit of a single blizzard. It was through a grinding, unrelenting, inch-by-inch accumulation that its bronze medal was won. Not only did it snow a lot, but it snowed on many days.

So many, many days.

And we at the Square Peg were made corpulent with delight.

And we shouldn't forget the cold. The winter just past was likewise the third-coldest in our history. It stands an Olympic-like three-tenths of a degree from the record low average of 18.3 degrees Fahrenheit posted in 1903/04. It is sobering to realize that for giant stretches of time, it was warmer in the freezer.

I am grateful I did not die while shoveling snow. This because owing to the bronze medal cold, much of the bronze medal snowfall was dry. To those luxuriating in blissful ignorance of such things, a heaping shovelful of dry snow weighs much, much less than a heaping shovelful of wet snow.

So there’s that.

But I can’t summon similar gratitude over the 2,628 times I had to scrape ice off the windows of my car. Or sweep snow from it or remove its cement-like accumulation from the wheel wells and front and rear undercarriage. Nor am I dancing a jig over the 104 additional gallons of gas I burned at $3.79 per warming it up.

The layers and layers of clothing I was forced to don every time I went outdoors and then had to remove when I returned indoors also left me distinctly unenthused. Ditto the considerable irritation I experienced while buckling my shoulder harness and seat belt in an already narrow space made narrower by bulky winter clothing.

And what of the snow and howling wind that inevitably finds the exposed flesh between the end of a jacket's sleeve and the top of a glove? Or that bit between a scarf and the northern terminus of a coat’s zipper? At wind chills below ten degrees, it may as well have been a knife at your jugular.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t shine a light (preferably an LED with fresh batteries) on the bane of all calcium-deficient human beings: falling.

I myself fell several times this winter. Fortunately, nothing broke. As shippers the world over have learned, it is difficult to break something wrapped like a Ming vase about to be offloaded by longshoremen.

(Which isn't to infer that I, in any way, shape or form resemble a Ming vase. Actually, I look more like a Jin Dynasty ewer.)

But as scientists point out, we do adapt. There is such a thing as acclimatization. While the thought of a post-work stroll through an open parking lot in nineteen degree weather would have been horrific in September, last week it seemed (all things being relative) balmy.

Yes, it’s true. I sauntered to my car in an unzipped coat. Carrying my gloves instead of wearing them. At the risk of diminishing my robust display of acclimatization, I should add there was no wind chill.

Combined with the two occasions this month that have seen the thermometer register a positively tropical fifty degrees, and there is tangible proof that even permafrost can be rendered impermanent.

But the ice scraper isn’t going anywhere. Snow is predicted later in the week.

My obituary is premature.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

My Conflicted Love

I’ve always been a car nut. In fact, I could say “car” before I mastered the two-syllable complexities of “mama”. Fortunately, I was born to a mother who, gracious by nature, forgave my misaligned priorities.

Obviously, something about the rolling sculpture of metal, glass, chrome and rubber fascinated me.

The day I discovered I didn’t possess the math and engineering skills necessary to be a car designer was probably the worst of my young life. Then why had I endured the classroom ridicule of so many teachers as I resolutely attempted to translate the cars in my imagination to paper?

This infatuation subsequently ebbed and flowed over the years, as I (in turn) discovered pop music, sports and girls. But it was never far from the surface, and reemerged in my late-twenties as strong as ever. It became conflicted as I gradually became aware of the degree to which the automobile shaped and influenced the twentieth century.

Yet my love is an egalitarian one. It encompasses everything, from old to new and up market on down. From 1929 Duesenbergs to the new three-cylinder Ford Fiesta. To my way of thinking, the Honda Accord is every bit the marvel a dazzling, futuristic concept car is. This because the Accord fulfills its purpose in a way few things in life ever do.

But despite the perfection of its utility, there aren’t very many people who lust for the Accord. It isn’t sexy. There is no exotic racing lineage. No cache. No status. It is merely the preferred appliance of the American soccer mom. For high-status sexy, you must look to Europe. England, Germany and Italy.

BMW, Bentley, Mercedes, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Porsche and Ferrari offer status and exclusivity to their owners. Attention. Sex appeal. Validation. Ownership inspires an I-have-one-and-you-don’t sense of superiority.

But it isn’t all hand-stitched leather and finely-calibrated engines.

While the rest of us look on longingly, the owner of a Porsche 911 must cough up three-hundred-dollars per oil change. The eager buyer of the new Porsche 918 will lay out 6K for the extravagance of a heater. 26K for “upgraded” leather. And 63K for something called liquid metal paint.

Porsche extends to prospective buyers an additional opportunity to boost its year-end earnings via the Weissach Package. What the buyer gets for a jaw-dropping 84K is the deletion of three components from the car.

That’s right. Stuff is taken off the car. For eighty-four thousand dollars.

Check-off the Weissach Package box on your order form and your sound insulation, leather upholstery and a portion of the passenger-side cooling infrastructure is removed in the interest of reducing mass.

I have just one question: is it more to remove the “upgraded” leather?

The total weight loss amounts to 90 pounds. I hope Weight Watchers is taking note. You seeing this, Slim-Fast? That’s nine-hundred and thirty-three dollars a pound.

But when you’re dropping $845,000 on a car, what’s another 84 thou? Percentage-wise, it’s like adding a GPS unit and upgraded sound to your Camry or Jeep Grand Cherokee. No biggie. Right?

Manufacturers like Porsche know intimately how desperate the well-heeled are to display their well-heeledness. The well-to-do require ever more exclusive and outrageous product, the better to stay one step ahead of the Joneses. And brands like Porsche and Bentley and Ferrari are only too happy to charge them for it.

For those of us on the other side of the glass, we can only laugh at their desperation. While many of us would like to give it to the one-percent, it is ironic that we have Porsche to do it for us.

In this, the Age of Diminished Expectations, it’s something.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Affordable Care Act and Me

I felt great relief when the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2009. Despite the perception that Americans routinely enjoy the best of everything, enormous gaps existed in our health care coverage.

Health care reform happened despite the formidable efforts of the well-financed health care lobby and its employees—fear-mongering conservative congressmen who instilled images of cold-blooded death panels in the panic-prone minds of their constituents. They insisted it was the road to a socialist hell.

Somehow, government running health care would be a giant step backwards from the accountants currently in charge.

Implementation has been even more difficult. Conservatives continue to fight it at every turn, and challenge it in any court that will listen. To date, nearly four-dozen attempts have been made to repeal it.

As a result, getting nationalized health care up and running has been like shooting a basketball with a gorilla hanging from your arms.

But it happened, and healthcare.gov went live in October of 2013.

Sadly, it has mostly lived down to its detractor’s predictions. The site was inoperable when it wasn’t inaccessible. Links didn’t work. Information wasn’t disseminated. There were billing snafus and miscommunications about policies and coverage. Its failures were (and remain) major news stories.

Against that larger backdrop, this is my experience. Despite initiating the application process three months ago, I remain without coverage.

I was an English major in college. That being the case, I defined ‘household’ as a group of people living at a common address. So when I encountered a request on the Medicaid application to list the members of my ‘household’, I dutifully listed the names of the three people who live with me.

The form immediately requested basic information about them as well.

Thing was, I didn’t realize the government's definition of 'household' meant only those parties seeking coverage. But given that definition, since I had already indicated I was only seeking coverage for myself, why was I even asked about my 'household'?

Perhaps the Department of Redundancy Department had nothing better to do.

I continued on my merry way, blissfully unaware of the fatal error I had committed. I clicked ‘save’ and ‘next’ like the computer savant that I am. And when I came to ‘submit’, I clicked that, too.

All done. Right?

One week later, I received a paper form requesting still-more information. Suffice to say an IRS audit would’ve been less-invasive. The only thing it didn’t ask was the net weight of high-fiber vegetables your little sister had consumed in her lifetime.

This, of course, ran counter to virtually everything I had been told about Medicaid. My finances and my finances only determined whether or not I was eligible. Not your sister’s fiber intake.

I called my local Department of Health. Then I called again. And again. And again. I called more times than Jennifer Aniston has been engaged. I left nice messages. And not-so-nice messages. I called in the morning and I called in the afternoon.

But I suspected I wouldn’t hear from anyone anytime soon. (Hey—you don’t suppose there’s a musical in all of this, do you?)

Then I considered an in-person visit. But I was advised the four-hour window I had before work was insufficient. And taking an unpaid day-off from what was already a low-paying, part-time job wouldn’t ever be an option.

Then I left a message requesting an extension, thinking the extra time would allow me to correct what was obviously a simple misunderstanding. But since this required actual communication, it was like putting ‘Cubs’ and ‘World Series’ in the same sentence. Oops.

Jean-Paul Sartre couldn’t conjure up a more hopeless scenario. So I let the application lapse.

Shockingly, the Department of Health contacted me (by mail—things weren’t getting that shocking!) and informed me that since I hadn’t provided the requested information by the required date, my application was being denied.

OK.

Flush with the inevitable optimism of the approaching new year and newly versed in government-speak, I submitted another application. But only after meeting with a certified, honest-to-goodness government health care representative (called a navigator) at my local library.

Of course, it took six attempts over the course of ten days before the site allowed me to complete it. I again clicked the ‘submit’ button, fully aware of the implications.

A happy message appeared, telling me that my application had been received and that I would soon be enrolled and enjoying healthcare coverage.

That was six weeks ago.

Nothing has shown up in my mail box. Nothing has shown up in my inbox. And I won’t even mention the telephone. And yet healthcare.gov tells me I am enrolled.

When I call or use the online chat function at healthcare.gov, I am alternately told my application is being processed, there is a log jam or that I simply need to call my local Department of Health office.

Yeah.

I tell them that is an act of abject futility. That I might as well attempt to calculate how many fastened buttons there are in the world at this moment versus unfastened ones.

This usually leaves them speechless.

No one can confirm exactly where I’m enrolled, or in what.

Maybe I’m going about this all wrong. Maybe I just need to research the government’s definition of ‘soon’. And ‘enrolled’.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My Favorite CDs of 2013

With my fiftieth year as a pop music consumer just completed, and access to my blog regained, I shall henceforth set about naming my ten favorite albums of 2013 forthwith.

But first, a brief review.

Albums continued their sales decline, as our attention and time-challenged societies made singles their preferred mode of consumption. Retrospectives and archival live albums aimed at baby boomers continued to constitute an increasing percentage of album-length releases.

Ditto the box set, which at times seemed to endlessly recycle period albums into multi-disc extravaganzas costing hundreds of dollars.

But not all box sets were wanton cash grabs.

My favorite was Fisherman’s Box, a six-disc chronicle of the protracted recording sessions which yielded the Waterboy’s 1988 LP Fisherman’s Blues. The band moves effortlessly from folk to blues to the sixties-inspired pop that Karl Wallinger specialized in after he left to form World Party.

A reviewer on Amazon called this the ‘Irish Basement Tapes’ and he wasn’t far off.

Given the magnificence of this music, you could be forgiven for wondering why the remainder of the Waterboy’s oeuvre isn’t more familiar.

The vagaries of public taste, radio play and record company politics are the likely culprits (at least here in the U.S.), but whatever the Waterboy’s unfulfilled potential, Fisherman’s Box captures—however briefly—promise wildly and exuberantly fulfilled.

A tip of the hat goes to the re-imagined edition of Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait, which shows this period to have been far-richer than some combination of Dylan and Columbia let on.

Robin Trower enjoyed a stellar solo career after leaving Procol Harum, plying Hendrix-inspired epics to rock audiences eager to continue that six-stringed ride.

State to State: Live Across America 1974 – 1980 offers an appealing cross section of live performances, including an exceptional 1974 show in Philadelphia. The inclusion of a fiery 1975 London show would make this just about perfect, but I’m not complaining.

And neither will you. It's the archival live album of the year.

In an era given to hip hop, rockified country and featherweight pop, rock refuses to die.

The following list reflects rock in all its current variants, along with examples of the rhythm and blues (admittedly the blue-eyed variety) and country and western which flavored it along the way.

Time constraints forbid me from offering the capsule descriptions seen in years past. But I promise that all are worthy of your time and attention.


1. Big Scary – Not Art

2. White Denim – Corsicana Lemonade

3. Richard Thompson – Electric

4. Mogwai – Les Revenants Original Soundtrack

5. The Bamboos – Fever in the Road

6. Los Lobos – Disconnected in New York City

7. Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt

8. The Veils – Time Stays, We Go

9. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

10. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories


Honorable Mention:

My Darling Clementine - The Reconciliation?