Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why I Believe in Santa Claus

Despite continual claims to the contrary, there is little, if any doubt among able-minded people as to what Christmas is all about. We don’t need to drag old Linus out of retirement to provide us with another reminder. Christmas is (and always will be) a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus and general goodwill toward men. However, like Charlie Brown might lament, Christmas is often disguised as a crass commercial entity in which goodwill is tossed out the window like last year’s stocking and one does the best they can to deal with relatives they only have to tolerate once a year (usually involving extra egg nog). In the midst of all the good, bad and insane aspects of Christmas, there sits a jolly rotund man dressed in red making a list and checking it twice. For some, Santa Claus can be as controversial as the phrase war between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” For all the joy he brings to children around the world each year, there are many who question whether people – especially the young should believe in someone who may not exist at all. Santa’s residence, the North Pole, has been the subject of intense scrutiny by scientists. Is it possible for him to stay warm up there or is Santa’s house turning into a sauna?

Though many skeptics question the believability and possible effects of telling children that an overweight, immortal man flies around the world on Christmas Eve on a reindeer-driven sleigh to deliver presents to all good boys and girls, I, for one, do not. Think for a little bit about all the preposterous ideas we thrust upon children as they grow. Kids are taught from a young age that America lives in a democracy where we elect our own leaders fair and square, by the people for the people. Numerous political controversies and scandals have shown this ideal to be nothing but a sham regardless of ideologies. The right thinks the left is corrupt and vice versa. If one was to analyze the massive amount of political polling conducted on an almost daily basis, the one solid conclusion available is nobody trusts the government. Yet we tell children and ourselves it is our right and responsibility to participate in it. I think it’s safe to say politicians will disappoint more people than Santa.

Children are also taught that they should work hard when they get a job, spend and invest their money wisely and the economic system will reward their efforts. However, many people work too hard for too little and have seen their effort at work turn into an unexpected pink slip. Money saved from week to week in hope of providing a college education for their kids and a well-earned retirement vanished quicker than Santa’s ascendance from the chimney. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we still tell our kids this is the way to go. Are we not setting them up for an avalanche of reality later in life? Though economic collapses do pass and get better, they are still as annual as the seasons of the year. Santa Claus doesn’t fire you or lose your retirement in a ponzi scheme to build a better sleigh that never flies or has any presents.

Adults idolize athletes and pass their enthusiasm unto the young by taking them to games, buying posters and sports cards and encouraging them when they join a team. Many parents love sports and athletics so much their kids will do anything to reach a common interest with them. It is sad to say but 99 percent of all kids will not grow up and become the next Brett Farve, LeBron James or Joe Mauer. Yet this idolatry is encouraged by many as it does help one’s own performance to analyze the masters of the craft. Nevertheless, injuries, cuts and disappointments happen more often than they do not. If a child believes for years that they can really “make it” only to have that dream shattered, is this not a disservice to their concept of reality? When their heroes are discovered to be less than the image believed, whose fault is it for perpetuating the fallacy? No parent wants their child to become a cheater, a drug addict, an adulterer or a criminal yet pictures of athletes guilty of these faults adorn their rooms, lockers and Facebook pages. Santa doesn’t need steroids to enhance his sleigh, all he requires is belief.

Our children love rock and roll, movies and the culture of celebrity because we love it too. Is it really possible to play your kids a Rolling Stones concert and not talk about how cool Keith Richards is? Can we watch “The Dark Knight” and not discuss the death of Heath Ledger? We watch reality shows because it is fun to watch a train wreck but do we want out kids to aspire to such greatness as getting on the cast of “The Real World” or “The Hills?” If these are integral parts of our cultural mythology, then why do we shun Santa Claus?

Santa Claus is a pretty cool cat. He never disguises who he is or what he does. He watches over the good and bad in all of us, always choosing to side with the good. On one night, he transforms the scares we have in the dark into something magical. He gives presents even if we don’t deserve them. He sticks candy in stockings despite being diabetic. Santa is a hero in a world that won’t believe anymore. Yet he is still here, this December night, making his lists. Santa Claus is still here, despite all our cynicism. He is here for those who believe not just in him, but in the belief of us towards each other. I’d rather see my kids on Santa’s lap when they’re teenagers than encourage their belief in the other, more obvious fallacies of our society. They are more fake than Santa ever was or will be. I encourage everyone to tell their children to keep believing in Santa Claus, maybe even reignite that childhood spark of wonder within you. In a society with so few heroes and role models, we need the magic of Santa now more than ever.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What I Want For Christmas Is...A Good Christmas Movie!

Why we are sucked into a holiday time warp of nostalgia

I must have been about three or four the first time I saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I conscious had begun to realize what Christmas was or at least what my parents thought it was. My Mom was full of excitement that “Rudolph is on tonight!” As I sat three feet in front of the RCA cabinet television, my imagination was completely sucked into this three dimensional moving world. The story seemed to be taking place right now in front of my eyes, no doubt helped by Burl Ives’ fantastic narration. “Rudolph” was everything a great family film should be: A plucky hero (Rudolph), a trustworthy sidekick (Hermie the elf), a scary monster (the Abominable), memorable songs such as “We’re a Couple of Misfits”, a love interest (Clarice) and a genuine father/son conflict. All of this was wound into a tight-written story by the Rankin/Bass production team which, had they had the backing to extend the T.V. special into a feature film, would have been considered one of the best ever made.

I was in awe of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and its appeal has crossed from the baby boomers that initially saw it in 1964, the me-generation 80s kids, through Generations X and Y and up to the present day of children who have yet to be categorized. 2009 will mark the 45th anniversary of “Rudolph” and its timelessness need not be debated. It is still watched by more than ten million people as is the other mainstays of Christmas specials, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” One begins to wonder why these films, almost half a century old, have an appeal to a public which seems to view all recent attempts at Christmas shows with cynicism.

If one were to make a list (and check it twice) of the truly memorable Christmas films and specials over the last thirty years, the list is shorter than Hermie’s dental career. “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” was a humorous and heartfelt endeavor by Jim Henson which was aired in the late 70s. It is still available for viewing via YouTube and holds up quite well, particularly the “Gift of the Magi” sequences featuring Bert, Ernie and the late Mr. Hooper. 1983’s “A Christmas Story” is a classic unto itself. It is my Dad’s favorite Christmas film and I enjoy watching parts of it several times each year during the 24-hour marathon on TBS. I gave him a leg lamp for Christmas a few years ago, one of the few times he genuinely got something he liked. 1988’s “Scrooged” featured a macap – if erratic performance by Bill Murray and hilarious supporting roles for Carol Kane and Bobcat Goldthwait. 1989’s “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” may be the last of the truly great Christmas classics. Although uneven in places, Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswald channels the real spirit of Christmas in many of us. The concept of going out of your way to make the holiday special for your family and having it blow up in your face is more common to many than a strand of lights malfunctioning. 1990’s “Home Alone,” featured a premise which could have taken place at any time but Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern deliver classic comedic performances which deserve to be appreciated more than they are. All of the aforementioned films are guilty of pouring on the heart at the end. Nobody seemed to mind the clich├ęs at the time, yet it seems ages since a similar film was greeted with a warm heart and not the cynicism currently prevalent towards Christmas films.

The question exists inside us like the internal debate about Santa Claus. Is it the world that has changed or is it we who have turned into cinematic “Scrooges?” Is it the formula which has aged unto a purgatory of Lifetime Network films or have we just lost our “inner Clark Griswold” that pushes us to make a few weeks in December just a little bit happier? Many of us agree with good old Charlie Brown: Christmas has become too commercial. It isn’t “real” anymore. We ignore the voice of Linus, choosing to revel in the parodies of Christmas. I am guilty as anyone of loving these things. From Al Bundy in “Married With Children” being shown by his guardian angel, Sam Kinison, that his family’s life would be better if he was dead, South Park’s Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, to the ultimate endgame of Christmas films, “Bad Santa,” I laughed at them, every one. How can we reconcile the ridicule of the present with the idolization of the past? Have our hearts, like the Grinch’s, grown three sizes too small?

The answer is not in a moral or parable but in our history. “Rudolph.” “Charlie Brown,” and “The Grinch,” were not created in an era of cynicism and despair, but one of hope. The creators of these films lived through a horrible war where nations were devastated and up to 70 million people were killed. In the face of such destruction, beacons of hope were inevitable. There was a desire to make the world a better place for our children and give them the magic which had been lost upon so many as bombs dropped and servicemen knocked at the door. The themes in these aforementioned films were those of understanding one another, forgiving people for their faults and believing that magic happens if you believe in it just enough. These people were thankful that the entire planet didn’t get blown to bits. That’s a pretty hard philosophy to follow. Hopefully, we never will.

“It’s A Wonderful Life,” arguably the greatest Christmas film or special ever made, was released after the end of World War II but takes place when the outcome was seriously in doubt. The economy was faltering, bad bankers were abundant and nobody knew if their loved ones would come home. Capra’s era is not that different from our own. We’ve got bad guys our army has to fight, bad bankers which we could only hope to stop and an uncertain future if we can make it enough to provide for our loved ones. The past speaks to us because it tells us the truth. We really do want to believe despite our prevailing sarcasm. Maybe we don’t really feel the desperation of hope that Capra did, the triumph of earnestness of Charles Schultz, the redemption of Dr. Seuss and the belief in magic of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. We should thank the highest star on Christmas Eve that they gave it to us and that we should not need to go through it ourselves.

I urge everyone to look outside the regular Christmas tree of T.V. specials. The new ones might not be so bad. Maybe they just need a little love. Sometimes that’s all that we need. Just a little lift. A guardian angel, a spark of belief, a resilient tree or a shining red light in the darkness. Give the present as much attention as the past. Not just for yourselves, but for the future you long for and want for your children. Enjoy the new specials on Lifetime, Disney and Nickelodeon. Think of how you felt seeing Rudolph fly, Clark Griswold cry in the attic and George Bailey holding Zuzu under the tree. Maybe it does take a miracle to believe in Christmas these days but as Joel Grey sang in “The Night Before Christmas,” even a miracle needs a hand.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Waking Up With Country

I’m not sure when I woke up, but I’m sure it started with a song. The morning milking was AM radio ringing in the house. It was five in the morning as I heard the radio ring. It was Boone and Erickson on WCCO AM and the songs my Daddy sang. It wasn’t easy, scratching the dust under my eyes. My Dad got up with a fire and a mission. I heard the “good morning” song on the radio and I watched my Dad get up. There were cows to be milked and Granddad was waiting. He sang the morning songs before the sun rose, songs meant to be sang as you grunted it out. As he showered, he was happy, the land which he farmed on was his and his father’s. The songs sung in affirmation to the world he lived in and was never going to be gone. I must have been four or five, when I rode with Dad on his tractor. We spread manure over the land and laughed at its splatter. I guess it was funny, when I volunteered to clean it off. To me, it was happiness seeing my family get along.

I remember the radio alongside the milk tank that I climbed. There must have been work to do, but to me it was just fun. It was a ride watching machines work, holding a lever just right. I don’t know if I helped anything but being a part of it was magical. I walked through the barn like a labyrinth, with trap doors and forts made of hay. I could hide and imagine adventures every day. The sounds and the daydreams in the hay were safe inside myself. It was a castle of straw, a world that hummed with the buzz of making something. I had my first adventures there as my Granddad tugged me down. We watched the milk fill the tank and he would tell me stories and jokes while we sat. As I sat on his lap, there was a calendar and a radio. Thirty years later, the calendar and the phone still sit like it was 1981. The barn is a hard room to go into for inside I see my past.

There was a sense of purpose, of prosper and happiness. Maybe it was just contentment and a grasp onto the past. The radio sang morning and another day with the cows. I guess it must be hard, getting kicked at all the time. It must have been harder to let go, hoping the future will be more fine. I miss my Dad, milking cows and swearing strong. I miss my Granddad, laughing as he went along. Granddad always had a big perspective. What is broken could be fixed. To this day I miss his smile and his magic of fixing a problem just by poking at its innards. If he ever got mad, he never showed it to me. Granddad gave me the wonder of farming while my Dad busted his ass.

My Dad and Granddad worked well together, a yin to a yang. They could always solve a problem, one way or another. I remember when I was nineteen years old, helping Granddad fix tractors in the shed and he was so proud of me. He gave me the rope and I ran with it. We bought repair parts and I saw him turn on his charm. It was so fun to be there, inside his warmth. A few years later I was helping him work on a tractor and he told me in sadness that he didn’t have the strength anymore. That admission did not stop him from trying and make me love him all the more for admitting it. He didn’t quit. My father won’t either. When I start one of our tractors, I feel them both inside me.

I am alone on the John Deere 4020 tractor as my Dad combines. I feel the air around me and I feel Granddad. He’s talking baseball or girls to me with a gold-toothed grin. No matter the weather, he always knows it works out in the end. I always look to the side of my tractor and see him there. He’s there keeping me company while I wait and guiding me while I unload my wagon. My Grandma makes the same sandwiches, with the same love and care. In the open air of the field, I feel it all within me. Despite how hard it can be and the animosity that comes with the field, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

There’s always an argument between fathers and sons. A simultaneous need to teach and to love. To criticize and approve. I don’t think this philosophy has been any different for generations. We want our children to learn from us and improve on our mistakes. We also don’t want them to fail. Maybe that’s why fathers have that loud voice. I used to hear my Dad and Grandpa yell at each other. Usually it was a disagreement of how something should be fixed or how best to go about what they agreed previously about fixing. Sometimes, one would walk away, angry and confident in their belief. It never lasted long, a day at the most to cool heads and realize that nobody was really wrong. Emotions can get to you sometimes, more so if they build up. It takes an eruption to calm a volcano. After the dust is settled, there are still two guys working together. I saw that with my Dad. I think my Granddad is still there with us when we get mad. A child of the depression has seen far worse than auger placement and branch cutting. He could just say our names: “Michael! Adam!” and it would be enough to check ourselves and get straight. Granddad spoke to both of us a night ago. I’m pretty damn sure my Dad and I both saw his deep blue eyes and arms holding his crutches firmly. He didn’t need to say anything, the thought of him brought us back together. His words were what my Dad and I heard inside. There is no giving up, not now, not ever.

Granddad is with my Dad and I when we drive around the county looking at crops. Sometimes Dad tells the stories out of his mouth, about the land and who owns it. We drive and look at the hills and valleys slowly. I feel Granddad in the truck with us, wondering what he would point out or what joke he would tell. But I also know that he sees a new time, when there is a grandson who is a now a father, a father who is now a Granddad and a little boy and girl who would love to be taken on that long ride. I hope he sees his great grandchildren rolling down the hills, playing in the dirt and climbing the tractors he drove for many years. Even today, my son asks about who he was and it makes me think of the times my Granddad, my father and I had harvesting together. Although the road is not easy, I hope my kids see the paths paved by their ancestors. To take a steep breath at the top of a hill overlooking a lake, sled down a hill into a snow bank, make a baseball field out of abandoned buildings, climb a hayloft looking for trap doors, fish by the lake at five in the morning, listen to a Twins baseball game beneath the trees as the sun sets, dig a cave into a snowdrift with your dog or cat, explore all the silos with mice and spiders, put the tractor in one gear faster than needed, screw up a few times but have it forgiven and sit at the end of the day on Granddad’s old step stool.

The barn has no cows. The hay loft is thirty years old. The spirit is still there as long as there’s someone to hold onto it. Things break – we fix it. If we break - we should fix it. The machinery gets older but the manual stays the same. The radio still plays in the morning. It plays the same song that was heard thirty years ago. It’s the song my Granddad heard as he smoked his pipe milking cows. It is in the shed as my kids pick up the air compressor and make art out of dirt as their father did thirty years ago. When my father and I close the shed doors for the night, it is not an end, but a beginning. Locking the doors is not for yesterday, but for tomorrow. As I leave the shed, I always look up at the sign my Dad put up after my Grandpa died. In handwritten black paint, an autograph of Earl Koeppe. My Granddad. My Dad’s father. It isn’t a remembrance but an inspiration: Never give up! Laugh along the way! Life may be hard but it is short. Enjoy the harvest and reap the knowledge and dreams past from generation to generation. Pass your ancestors’ stories to your own descendants, so their legacy fills the land and air we breathe. They are the best crop you will ever sow, the kind that lasts forever.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where Wild Things Are Born

A long time ago, in a shire that’s not too distant, there was a television set. The television set served as a home for many a child, a shining god covered by oak surrounded by plants, coffee tables, ashtrays and pictures of family on adjacent corners of the living room wall. There’s a record player at another corner, gigantic and with switches that could make any child excited with the opportunity to play the music stored in the rack below. The TV and the stereo were magical things which gave you a passport beyond the world of action figures and Barbie dolls. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, these were your parents’ toys, not your own. One false move on the big RCA tube could cause the family T.V. to go into all weird forms of color, none of which would be acceptable to Mom and Dad. A scratch on a 45 stopped that great record, skipping where there should have been a beat. It wasn’t easy being a kid in the 1970’s. Everything broke and it took a lot of money to fix it. There was no reset button, no re-boot. A child’s hand brought about the electronic apocalypse to these appliances our parents had only dreamt of. In an era where no-one had a thousand CD’s or movies, there were just these two boxes of information. The stereo and television meant a lot to parents raising kids in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was a semblance of release and relaxation. A virtual babysitter to help take away the daily doldrums of everyday life, yet these advancements left a void. The emptiness which is left when parents aren’t around anymore. This void was filled by imaginations of children, filled with wild things.

Film animation shorts had neared its end in the 1950’s. Film companies like Warner Brothers, MGM and Disney started to transition their product to the widening television audience, ending their theatrical short output in favor of the now famous “Saturday Morning” cartoons. The 1960’s output of MGM alum’s William Hanna and Joseph Barbera proved widely popular but Yogi Bear and Snagglepuss were not adequate substitutes for the quality of film shorts a decade before. The stories were weak, the animation sub-par. For many kids seeing this retread of Mack Sennett’s classic silent shorts was enough to take away a morning of Mom not talking to Dad, or Mom working without a Dad. Maybe watching Yogi Bear take the umpteenth picnic basket was a type of solace; Fred Flintstone or George Jetson getting some comeuppance yet being forgiven by their family for their weekly stupidities made the doldrums of reality easier to take. For many kids, this reality was either too blatant and boring or just enough of an excuse to escape into a book filled with possibilities, maybes and everythings.

Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” was published during the advent of the Saturday Morning cartoon era. However, it’s words and pictures evoke an era long-gone. The book was a movie before it ever was one. It is a journey into escape, a world without boundaries. It was designed as a story with multiple interpretations for parents to tell their children; have them look at the pictures and dream of a fantastical world of kind, gentle monsters that epitomize comfort when parents cannot, or show a scary land of unpredictability, filled with creatures who love you so much, they’ll eat you up. Sendak’s pictures of the “wild things” make you love or fear them, depending how you look at each creature. It seems they move through the flow of your emotions. Is it how you look at them or how they look at you? Each moves differently through different eyes. The book is short, yet the eyes of the wild things catch you: are you joining the “wild rumpus” or running away? Is the real world worth escaping? Is the comfort of being loved, no matter how complicated it may be, more real than a world of adoring monsters? Is the soup still warm?

Many of us join Max on our various escapes from the real world. We want to get away, just for a little bit, to take our journey outside of our bedrooms and our lives. We clutch the blanket over our heads, hiding from the world as we finds sleep underneath the covers. Sometimes we hold our kids, sometimes we hold our spouses, sometimes we just hold on to pillows. There is a wall that sits when we go to sleep. It is the wall with a small door we want to go through before we think about it. It can be seen in a cuddle, the part you feel next to your loved one right before sleep sets in. Their door opens and you become just a little bit of them. Maybe it is in part of your kids as they hold onto you while they are coaxed to sleep. As they chase their dreams or nightmares, your steadfast comfort provides a journey full of wonder and hope. If you find yourself lying alone, cold and against the wall with a blanket covering your head, you can draw the way out with the tip of your finger. As it gets cold and lonely, place your finger on the wall, drag it up a little bit, then sideways and down to make a door. It might take a few times but trust yourself. By the second or third time, you’re deep into sleep and you’re gone.

A recent article by Bruce Handy in the New York Times questioned the appeal of the original 1963 book, implying “Where the Wild Things Are” was intended to garner the favor of critics and not necessarily children, at least not modern youth raised on such fabulous works such as the film adaptations of “The Grinch” and “The Cat in the Hat.” Maybe Handy has a point but if he does, it is a sad one, indeed. Have we grown into such literal-minded adults, hell-bent of creating literal-minded youths by age six that all the imagination has slowly been squeezed out of the psyche like extra lemon juice unneeded for a modern mental cocktail? However, it is worth noting Times devoted multiple articles a little over a month ago covering the great resurgence of another product from 1963: The Beatles. It should be suggested to Mr. Handy that he trash his Beatles records (if he has any) any purchase a nice copy of the Kingsmen’s Greatest Hits as “Louie, Louie” seems to be more his speed. Modern children are not much different than those Maurice Sendak wrote to in 1963. The have infinitely more technology and access to media but they still become bored with commercial crap written in a Hollywood boardroom. For every kid who was bored by the Hanna-Barbara shows of the sixties such as Yogi Bear or Huckleberry Hound, there are kids in 2009 who think they are being subjected to a visual lobotomy by watching “The Grinch.” I supervised a group for fifth graders last December who treated the Jim Carrey abomination like an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” I let them have their heckling fun, knowing their own sense of humor was infinitely better than the jokes they were being subjected to. The reason classic shows such as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Rankin-Bass specials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” retain their appeal is they never lose the sense of imagination and wonder which exists inside children be they eight or eighty-eight.

Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” required significant expansion of Sendak’s original book. Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers never lose focus on the imagination of the boy, Max. An early scene in the film shows Max building a fort in his room with many of his stuffed animal friends sitting just so underneath the sheets. It is a short but poignant shot, as any child who grew up lonely (to a certain extent, we all do) could empathize with Max’s longing for companionship and adventure. Anyone who had stuffed companions in their youth might remember that many of their friends’ personalities were malleable, changing to accommodate the adventure of the day. As Max begins his adventure into the land of the wild things, the creatures mirror the various emotions of a young child and the personalities they inject into their own bedside companions. There is Carol (wonderfully voiced by James Gandolfini) who wants everything in the world to be perfect and to be the center of attention and affection. Another, K.W., does not want to play, but when is coaxed into doing so by Max becomes the “new” favorite, much to the ire of Carol. Judith, the suspicious one, slowly joins the fun as well. Many of the other creatures are treated with less attention and detail, which is how any child plays out their imaginary adventures. There can only be so many best friends at one time and the shy sweetness of several of the wild things shows an imagination full of love, but there only is so much room under the sheet fort.

As with many pretend adventures, building and comradery turns to conflict out of the necessity of new excitement. Max decides to have a war and puts the wild things on sides of “good guys” and “bad guys.” The favorites Carol and K.W. are part of Max’s team with most of the other wild things delegated to “bad guy” status despite their protests. Like any rough play, real or imaginary, things get hyper, out of control and someone gets hurt. Alexander, the diminutive goat, is picked on repeatedly and another wild thing suffers an injury all too common in stuffed animals: the loss of a limb. Jonze and Eggers show the fallout from the eyes of young Max who slowly realizes each and every one of these creatures has feelings of their own. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience in the past, cherished friends who became casualties in a bedroom version of “Lord of the Rings.” When you saw them hurt, arms ripped, eyes cracked, how did you feel? Did you like the world you created or did it make you sad to see what happened to the friends you piled on top of you in the middle of a scary night? Did you feel bad for the one you ignored or the one that lost an arm? Making things better in your own imaginary world can be just as emotional, if not more so, than the real one.

The only scene between Max and Alexander involves the feelings of being ignored. Max attempts reparations, but there is sadness dominating the world he once loved. The playtime is over and he longs to be comforted, stating he wished they had a mommy like he did. The adventure is over and it is time to leave, just as it is always time to leave the fort in the bedroom. There are goodbyes, tears and sadness. The severed arm of the injured wild thing is not healed, just replaced with a clumsy stick. When you said goodbye to your friends, was it not the same? There is always tomorrow for dreams to come true. As Max journeys back to his home and to reality, he takes the adventures of all kids, big and little with him. In the end, a nice hot bowl of soup and the embrace of someone who loves you unconditionally is the destination we all want to land in, whether we are immature enough to admit it or not.

When you see “Where the Wild Things Are,” think about where you were when you were Max. Be it ’62, 72, 82, 92, 02 and all the years in-between including the present day. What were your adventures? Who (and what) accompanied you? Do you miss them? Do you want to go back there? Do you miss being under a real, big pile? If you have children, take the time and watch them go on their adventures. Be quick about it, for eventually they will hide them. Go through the fingernail door in the cold wall, before it shrinks forever. Watch the stories they tell. They are the same stories, just different players. Notice the friends who are guarding them against the dragon and those who have to sit and hold up the fort. Maybe that sad, little friend just needs a little love. Go back to that world, just one more time. I dare you. Your kids will notice the glimmer inside you, the belief of what is impossible and illogical is believable as long as you have enough childhood inside you to still believe. The child in us may be distant, but is never truly gone as long as we believe in a world of forts, sailboats and wild things.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

In the Slumber of Angels

No-one knows how conversations happen with kids. Subjects blurt out of the blue without context or logic, yet the questions start to require thoughtful answers. By about four or five years old, the innate b.s. detector starts to go off when a topic is sidestepped. Like any good, inquisitive reporter, they press the matter but sometimes are unprepared for the answers which may be given. “Daddy, where’s your grandpa?” Shane asked one late Friday night. He must have overheard my mentioning of my late grandfather, on what would have been his 92nd birthday. “He’s dead, Shane,” I replied. There was no point or logic in lying.
“When’s he going to come back? When can I meet him?”
I took a deep breath. “He’s not coming back.”
“He’s gone away forever?” Shane’s voice sounded sad and scared.
“For a long time…he’s in heaven now.”
“Where’s that?” Too bad the Pope wasn’t around to pontificate. I would have settled for Rick Warren or even Oprah.
“It’s the place people go when they die.” I knew what was coming next.
“Where? Just tell me where!” I tried the fourth dimension analogy.
“It’s a place that’s far away but is right next to you at the same time,” I said using a little of Doctor Who’s sense of the universe. The universe, at least as we know it, does not exist in a child’s eyes, only facts of what is or is not.
“Away?” His eyes swelled with tears. “I don’t want to go away! I don’t want to die! I want to stay alive forever!”

My son began crying and there was little I could do to console him. Death is not a subject many adults are comfortable with, let alone an innocent little boy. About a year ago, I used the Sesame Street episode discussing the death of Mr. Hooper to convince the three year old Shane not to use dying so much in his action play. That wasn’t going to cut it this time. Over the past year, he began to show a love of nature and animals, big and small. He started to notice the change of seasons: plants growing, bearing beautiful fruits and flowers. He wanted to take care of a stray little bird in the garage, hoping it would be his friend forever. Shane held the bird for a few hours and we made it a little home inside a playhouse in the backyard. We checked on his “little birdie” several times before he went to bed. I hoped as much as I could hope, that I would not see what most people see when they try to care for a bird that can’t fly. The next morning arrived not because I wanted it to, but because it had to. Some things like sunrise are just inevitable. Shane was still sleeping on our couch (which he prefers to his bed) as I walked outside to look inside the playhouse. The little bird was gone with no signs, struggle or carnage. In the midst of the night, it must have found a way to fly. It seems many of us grow cynical with age and the conventional wisdom of many still sees the tiny bird meeting an unfortunate fate at the hands of nature’s innate cruelty. I chose the optimistic approach, not just because it was better for Shane, but it is what I wanted to believe as well. Our faith was rewarded a few days later, as I saw the little bird landing on a tree in the yard. I grabbed Shane and showed him that his little friend was ok. It is those little experiences that give you faith in the universe and the forces which control it. Sometimes there is beauty beyond belief.

That experience was a few months removed from the basement incident. Shane had begun to understand what death was and there was nothing I could do to prevent it. There are as many good things as bad when it comes to growing up. We can lie to ourselves and say they don’t exist or we can accept the inevitable. Our children will not always be protected from bad things, no matter how hard we try. Shane dried his tears for a little bit and asked me “What did your Grandpa look like?”
“He was tall, had short hair and wore glasses,” I said, choking up a little.
“What else?”
“He was funny and kind. He smoked a pipe and smelled like leather.” It had been many years since I sat in my Grandpa’s lap but his smell felt like yesterday as I described it.
“What else?”
“He had one leg.”
“How did that happen?”
“A long time ago, he had an accident on the farm and he hurt his leg,” I said, recalling the story told to me many times by my Grandmother. I knew this part was not going to go over well. It’s hard to tell a child farming is something enjoyable when the consequences can be so severe.
“Was he alright?”
“Yes. God took care of him.”
“What did he look like?” Kid conversations take such an immediate and persistent turn.

I took Shane to my computer and brought up pictures I used in a previous essay about my Grandparents. I pointed out Granddad’s wooden leg.
“How did he walk?”
“He had crutches like Mommy had when she broke her ankle. He could walk very fast.” Indeed, he could. His agility had to be seen to be believed. This onslaught of reality combined with being very tired became too much for Shane. The world is a scary place, full of hazards and dangers. There comes a point where looking out for cars while crossing the street becomes real. This was that time. There was nothing I could do to help him process all this, except watch him cry to sleep next to his Mommy. I’d had enough of the circle of life for one night but I was determined to do one thing before I went to bed. I didn’t want him to wake up and be alone. I scrunched into the couch beside him and held him until I slept.

There’s a lot of parents who long just for a night or weekend to escape the daily venture into “kidland.” Actually, I think that’s all parents, whether we chose to admit it or not. Anyone who packages themselves as “super-parent” is either living a lie or trying to sell a book – Kate Gosselin: THIS IS YOU. Every parent needs a break but most of us do not have the luxury of hiring Nell Carter. The last night I spent away from my kids, I ended up talking about them. Truth be told, that was most of the nights. As much as I wanted to pretend to be a non-parent, my gut ate me up enough where I couldn’t place myself outside of the life I’ve had for almost five years. My son and daughter are a part of me, the biggest part of me that I will give to this world. I understand what it is like to long for a feeling of irresponsibility. Those days are fun but they are best left for those who have yet to feel a part of yourself which you have to love and protect. Little kids don’t fly overnight. Most aren’t ready to fly for twenty years. Every time I’m not there, I constantly think of them and what they are doing, if they are happy and full of love.

Admittedly, parenting is hard. That’s why parenting magazines and books sell better than Mountain Dew or Coca-Cola. I refuse to think or believe that my times without my children are better than the times I spend reading books, building castles or protecting them from kids who want to bury their grasshopper collection with rocks. I feel bad when I lose my train of thought in mid-day. I can list two-thousand records in my collection or every Doctor Who episode made but sometimes I forget to replace coffee lids. But I got the sippy cup in the middle of the night and held my daughter as she fell back to sleep. I can’t showcase the fun times I have without my kids as I’d rather be riding down the waterslide with them. The stress of raising kids is big, bigger than being President of the United States of America (wait – he does both). The worst thing any parent can do is give in when your kids need you most. Note to parents: YOUR KIDS WILL ALWAYS NEED YOU.

There is much talk about “helicopter parents;” parents who choose to supervise their child’s development at a miniscule scale one would think they are MIT students working on a master’s paper. I don’t advocate such intense supervision as much as being there for your kids when they need you. I have many friends who are single parents and have chosen to do what is not just natural, but what is right. They may not get the “second spring” that their exes do, but the reward lasts a lifetime. Just picking up your kid after school, playing a game like “Chutes and Ladders” or helping them with algebra provides a bigger buzz than any Saturday night at the local bar pretends to be. I feel bad for parents who think they’re lonely, for they are forsaking the unconditional love their children give to them every day. Most parents have had one good go-round of being an irresponsible child. Providing your children with a relatively happy, fun and memorable childhood requires giving up certain remnants of your youth. Not the fun parts, but all the stupid ones. If you are thinking “I don’t know what you mean” then you must have merged stupidity with fun a long time ago.

Shane started pre-school this month. I didn’t shed any tears as much as I was proud of him. He cares about people and the world around him, which is something I hope will never be taken away. He gives flowers to strangers because he thinks it will make them a little bit happier. My daughter, Romana, longs to be part of his class but she still likes a nice hug and a good book to keep her company before she destroys Shane’s Lego robot. The happiest times I have now are not at a party, but when I pretend to be asleep and they talk to each other, becoming not just brother and sister but friends. Both of them want to be cuddled with at night and who am I to refuse. There will come a time, as it is the way of things, where they no longer need nor want the comfort of Mommy and Daddy. Until then, I am happy to lie beside angels.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Smells Like Fake Spirit: How the Guitar Hero Franchise Jumped the Shark

When I was an alien, cultures weren’t opinions,” – Kurt Cobain

On September 1st, 2009, the fifth installment of the popular rhythm game franchise, “Guitar Hero” was released to little fanfare, its arrival eclipsed by a similar game featuring a band whose recording career ended forty years ago. While the Beatles were grabbing all the headlines with “Beatles Rock Band” a YouTube user named Corporalgregg2 released a video compilation highlighting some of the new features available in the “Guitar Hero 5” video game. Specifically, the video shows one of its playable characters, the late Kurt Cobain, singing Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” and most disturbing, Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name.” The Guitar Hero 5 shows Cobain rocking out to these songs with mannerisms appropriate to each of the tunes. He jumps around like Flavor Flav during “Bring the Noise” and poses like a poseur during “You Give Love a Bad Name.” Much of the rock community, especially Cobain’s fans, were outraged that his likeness was used in such a disrespectful, humiliating fashion. Blame was mostly laid at the feet of Courtney Love, Cobain’s widow. Love has vehemently denied signing Cobain’s likeness to Activision (the developer of Guitar Hero 5) but has been subjected to countless attacks from all sides since she began making statements regarding the situation on Twitter.

Attacking Courtney Love is easy for many music fans, who tend to blame her for exploiting Kurt Cobain’s death over the last fifteen years. Much like politics, pointing fingers is easy but doing so represents an ideological short cut in which angry fans find a scapegoat for their frustrations (see Barack Obama and tea parties). Love’s band Hole released a phenomenal record in 1994, “Live Through This” which to many rock fans sounded like a Nirvana record – as if the output of Bush and Stone Temple Pilots didn’t. Hole’s follow-up release in 1998, “Celebrity Skin,” was more polished and produced and drew criticism as being a Smashing Pumpkins style record. The era of grunge had passed by the time of “Celebrity Skin” and many bands were releasing more produced material with less distortion. In retrospect, “Celebrity Skin” was a product of its time, as was “This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours” by the British band Manic Street Preachers. Music fans didn’t question the Manics’ motives, nor those of David Bowie when they changed their sound. Interestingly, other female rock artists of the time such as Liz Phair were subjected to the slander of “sell-out.” Phair’s 1998 album “Whitechocolatespacegg” was panned for its lack of an edge compared to her earlier releases, “Exile in Guyville” and “Whip-Smart.” This would be considered an outright double-standard except releases by the aforementioned Bush and Stone Temple Pilots were even crappier than their earlier material. The artists who gained fame during the early 90’s grunge era were growing up and evolving, except for Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. His death left a bookmark to the era which no artist could ever attempt to emulate or surpass.

Cobain’s mystique and reputation as an anti-authority, anti-corporate icon would remain intact for the rest of the 1990’s and into the 21st Century. Much like the late John Lennon, music fans tend to remember Cobain with rose-tinted glasses, forgetting that it was Cobain himself who wanted a more polished version of Nirvana’s sound, which was heard initially in the “Sliver” single and was perfected in the classic album “Nevermind.” It is probable Cobain never thought this step would turn the band into the next big thing as much as a production equivalent of the Pixies or Husker Du. His classic liner notes railing against wannabe fans in the album “Incesticide” confirms this. Cobain was not comfortable with being an icon. Had he lived, it would be hard to fathom him in one of those horrid Grammy Awards duets rocking it out with Kanye West. But like John Lennon, this speculation only exists in the form of what did happen or what we perceive our heroes to be. “Tomorrow Never Knows” can be taken both ways. A hardcore Bowie fan in the 1970’s would never have thought the Thin White Duke could release “Let’s Dance” in the 80’s. People are people, so why should it be that everyone is expected to act stereotypically?

Economically, Courtney Love is fine. She has not only the continual revenue from Nirvana material but also her own. There is little reasoning an individual with a lot of money would exploit the legacy of someone she loves for her own gain, if said gain would not significantly alter her way of life. Yoko Ono is insanely rich through being John Lennon’s widow. Many of her marketing choices regarding Lennon’s estate, such as jewelry, are questionable, but maybe she is doing the best she can to bring more of Lennon’s mystique to a new audience. But bashing Yoko is out of vogue, considering she has maintained a cordial business relationship with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the estate of the late George Harrison for quite some time. Hating Courtney Love is still a hobby for many Nirvana fans, which has largely been driven by the antagonism between her and Nirvana members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. Much of this animosity toward Love derives from the publication of Kurt Cobain’s Journals in 2002. The collection of Cobain’s diaries was thought by many to have been in poor taste and motivated by money. However, most material such as this finds its way into release sooner or later. Private letters and recordings of deceased U.S. presidents are widely considered revelations and are seldom condemned. Cobain’s journals would have eventually have been published by somebody, sooner or later. Why is the fact that Courtney Love chose to do it received with such hatred? Nobody cares that the family of Harry S. Truman released his private papers. Maybe Courtney Love should be commended for supervising Cobain’s journals, rather than leaving them to someone else.

The 2004 Nirvana box set, “With the Lights Out,” seemed to convince many fans that Love, Grohl and Novoselic had at least reached a truce of some sort. The release of Guitar Hero 5 has opened up decades old wounds, with Love, Grohl and Novoselic trading insulting barbs, blaming each other rather than focusing on the true culprit in the debacle. Activision has stated repeatedly they consulted the trio regarding the inclusion of the songs “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium” in Guitar Hero 5 and gave Love final approval on Kurt Cobain’s likeness in the game. Yet it seems they held something back, legalese or not. The term “avatar” meant having Cobain’s likeness included in the game to Love, not letting him sing the songs of other artists looking like a jackass. I challenge Love’s accusers to think about this. What is an avatar? A new movie by James Cameron? An animated show about an air-bender on Cartoon Network? I sure as hell would have a tough time explaining all this to my Dad. Logically, it seems Activision needed more playable characters for Guitar Hero 5 than Shirley Manson and Carlos Santana. In fact, players can humiliate the late, great Johnny Cash in the same fashion as Cobain, yet nobody is complaining – yet. However cool it may be to have the “man in black” sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it is certain many of his long term fans will consider this a bastardization of his legacy. Yet all focus and blame is focused on Courtney Love, who regardless of what she signed or did not sign, had absolutely no intent or desire to humiliate her husband.

Video games, by their nature, have to get bigger or better. The worst review a game can get is “I like the older one.” Games such as Madden NFL improve yearly but do not allow technological advances to sidestep the concept of football. Many game franchises are not as astute. Adding more features sometimes subtracts from the experience. Capcom’s “Street Fighter” franchise was the biggest game on the planet in 1992, the same time Nirvana was the biggest band in the world. Capcom struggled to advance “Street Fighter II,” arguably the best 2-D platform fighter ever made. They created more characters, invented more moves for players, but the initial feel was lost. The attempted to copy Namco’s Tekken into 3-D combat with little success. Capcom introduced tag-moves which confused players even further. It would be difficult to find modern game players lining up at midnight anticipating a new Street Fighter release. Instead of working on what made Street Fighter II a classic game, they chose to meddle with it and as a result turned off the millions of fans who bought the game in the first place.

Sega’s flagship icon, Sonic the Hedgehog, has suffered a similar fate. After making three games of blink-fast speed and control, Sega chose to enter the 3-D market. The spiky blue rodent no longer sped on all levels but walked around and collected idiotic objects in “Sonic Adventure.” Further attempts at modernization only succeeded in making Sonic suck even further. Like Capcom, Sega forgot what made the initial Sonic the Hedgehog games appealing. Other video game franchises such as Mortal Combat, Pitfall, and WWE pro-wrestling have suffered a similar fate. Improvement is not always advancement, new does not always mean better. The desire for more money, however, remains the same.

Activision knew it had to have something appealing to counteract the onslaught on “Beatles Rock Band.” Playable versions of music icons such as Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain seemed to be a logical step. The geeks in their cubicles thought “more means better.” Customization of licensed characters had been done in professional sports games and pro-wrestling games. What is the difference? The pathetic reality Activision has realized is there is a big contrast between making Brett Farve as great as he was in the 1990’s with a military-rifle arm or giving John Cena high-flying ability than making music icons sing songs they would never sing. Activision just wanted to make people more excited about the new Guitar Hero, just as ABC thought the Fonz would be super-cool skiing over a shark. But it is a converse equation: we don’t like the more, we want the less. Seeing Kurt Cobain singing songs of artists he hated does not widen the appeal of Guitar Hero, it shrinks it. Interestingly, punk icon Iggy Pop has chosen to let himself be rendered in Lego form for the upcoming “Lego Rock Band.” Players can “block-rock” as “the world’s forgotten boy” as they fake strum their way through his 1977 classic, “The Passenger.” It is quite debatable as to who will shell out fifty bucks for this privilege.

Guitar Hero’s CEO Dan Rosensweig states "We care about the artists more than anyone else and we would like to make artists happy in every circumstance.” It is doubtful Rosenswieg cares more about the artists in Guitar Hero than he does about his financial bottom line. It does not seem he cares about the fans of many of the artists included in the game either To many Nirvana fans, the gift Kurt Cobain gave to the world is not a joke, a game or an avatar for amusement. He was a hero to many who grew up listening to his music while they played video games. Regardless of complaints or compliments, the fake music games will fade into history like the “Macarena.” Kurt Cobain would quite possibly be amused by all this silliness, as he often made fun of Nirvana’s stature as a stadium act by doing deliberately horrid covers of “The End” and “Baba O’ Reilly.” He’d want everyone to stop taking everything so damn seriously. We should remember his advice: “Stop your crying – go outside and ride your bike.”

Monday, September 7, 2009

I'm Sick and Tired of Getting Ripped Off by the Beatles!

I don’t care too much for money,
Money can’t buy me love – Lennon/McCartney

What a crock. By the time “Can’t Buy Me Love” was released in early 1964, The Beatles were well on their way to fame and fortune. Their film “A Hard Days Night” would be released later that year to universal acclaim as the Fab Four laid claim to pop culture dominance in a way that has never been equaled since. At their commercial peak, there was no way a civilized person could escape Beatlemania except by possibly checking themselves into an asylum. There were magazines, lunchboxes, toys and incredibly great music. The music created by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr is as loved and appreciated now just as it was in the sixties. One can make the argument it is the strength of the songs and band, which has made the Beatles continually popular long after almost all their contemporaries have faded away, burned out or went to the great gig in the sky.

However, the Beatles and their managers were masters of self-promotion, possessing an uncanny ability to convince their legions of fans that every new Beatles product is amazing, indispensable and further evidence of their greatness. On September 8th, 2009, the Beatles will release remastered versions of their albums and September 9th, the hotly anticipated “Beatles Rock Band,” a video game which allows players to grab a facsimile instrument of their choice achieve a semblance of “inner Fab-ness.” Before the game has even hit store shelves, it has already received a plethora of accolades from the music press, which has universally proclaimed “Beatles Rock Band” will confirm the Fab Four’s status as the greatest band ever. Sorry. My needle’s stuck somewhere in the middle of “The Long and Winding Road.” It’s stuck on an instrumental bridge which just keeps repeating itself, over and over.

My version of the song is from the often-bootlegged “Get Back” sessions, the majority of songs were re-imagined by uber-producer and now convicted killer Phil Spector. The “Get Back” sessions were once some of the most sought after unreleased Beatle material. I purchased by copy fifteen years ago and was anxious to hear the original versions songs on what is widely considered the weakest of Beatles albums. To say that I was disappointed in the material contained in the “Get Back” record would be an understatement. Without the discipline of their longtime producer and mentor, Sir George Martin, the Beatles were revealed to be just another band who managed to get the best of breaks throughout their career. However, being a big Beatle fan, I relished having this sacred material, and have the album (with apple-green vinyl) on display at my house. The Beatles were still the greatest ever, and it never for once occurred to me to stop my pursuit of more Beatle product. After fifteen years of seeing continual yet sub-par merchandise, I’ve decided I’m done. I don’t care if anyone wants to pretend they are John Lennon with a plastic Les Paul guitar, make up various excuses as to why it is worth shelling out a week’s pay for music people already have or listen to baby-boomers attempt once again to make their geriatric generation relevant. I have the majority of Beatle-related crap issued since their breakup in 1970 and understand what tomorrow does not know: the Beatles love money more than they love you – Yeah, yeah yeah.

The Beatles and their management have orchestrated their posthumous releases in a fashion that has no comparisons in terms of marketing. Their only interest has been financial, to keep as many original fans buying crap but still holding enough in the vaults to keep the mystique alive. The 1970’s saw the Beatles splinter apart. The initial solo releases were excellent but by 1975, the well had run dry. The albums still sold well, but can anyone honestly state the last time they played McCartney’s “Band on the Run,” Lennon’s “Walls and Bridges,” Harrison’s “Dark Horse” or Ringo’s “Goodnight Vienna?” All of these albums were still big sellers but as I look through them, where did they go? Sadly, none of these releases are worth remembering except for those who ran to their local store in anticipation of hearing some resemblance to the band’s glory days. Even though there are a handful of decent songs, most copies are gathering dust on fan’s shelves, evidence of devotion, completion and a desire to get back to a time where all you needed was love. The Beatles were in danger on becoming irrelevant in an era where disco and punk rock were beginning to dominate radio waves. However, the band’s unreleased recordings were among the most sought after by rock and roll fans. Their live recordings and studio outtakes jump-started the bootleg industry. Beatle fanatics flocked to record stores which carried the material, forking over money for super-secret access to their heroes. As their seventies output entered a commercial and critical nadir, the Beatles chose to capitalize on the burgeoning bootleg industry. The 1977 release of “Live at the Hollywood Bowl” hit number one in Britain and number two in the United States. Upon listening to the material, originally recorded in 1964 and 1965, shows a heavily remixed concerts which brought back to many fans the feeling of Beatlemania. Interestingly, this best-selling record has yet to see a CD release. The following year saw the release of “Rarities,” an album that culled a few of the best bootleg tracks along with a lot of trivial material. Care to hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sang in German? Sure, I bet you do. Care to put it on your Ipod? Anyone, anyone?

Despite the fluff, “Beatles Rarities” succeeded in grabbing the attention of music fans. This was largely due to the opening track, the original version of “Across the Universe,” a song which was butchered by Phil Spector on the “Let It Be” album. This song was (and is) worth the price of the whole LP. Also included was “Rain,” the b-side to “Paperback Writer.” “Rain” had a cult following due to the band making a promotional video for the song. The Beatles were very savvy and were the first rock group to promote a 45 as two great songs, not just a designated hit as the a-side and a throwaway song on the flip. To buy a Beatles single from 1966-1969 meant getting two new Beatles songs, the majority of which would not end up on a full-length album release. The songs which did not end up on the “1964-1966” or “1967-1970” double albums were widely circulated among fans. Although the George Harrison B-side to “Lady Madonna,” “The Inner Light” was included, the Beatles chose to make their fans wanting the rest of the b-side material. There is no concise argument that can be made as to why the Beatles did not do this in 1978. None. I challenge the Nowhere Man to think for himself. Ironically, Neil Innes and Eric Idle released the Rutles film and album in 1978, appropriately titled “All You Need is Cash.”

In 1987, the Beatles entered the newest sonic medium of the eighties, the compact disc. The surviving Three-tles (Lennon was assassinated in 1980) stuck to their marketing mantra and gave themselves yet another financial ticket to ride. To ensure Beatle fans across the world would purchase the newly remastered catalog, all forms of album releases would be deleted from their catalog in favor of the British releases. This is why you can’t find your parents’ or grandparents’ copy of “Meet the Beatles!” on CD. Switching to the British catalog of album releases changed up song orders on all Beatle albums until 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” after which all album tracks were uniform. Most of the American releases contained the Beatles’ hit singles but the British versions tended to be stand-alone releases, with few singles contained therein. Fans who wanted songs such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” I Feel Fine” or “Day Tripper” were forced to buy two new compilations, “Past Masters Volumes One and Two” to complete their Beatle catalog. American fans who grew up listening to “Beatles 65”, “Something New” or “Yesterday and Today” were just plain out of luck…for now.

As the eighties drew to a close, a new type of music was emerging, grunge. Seattle bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were quick to drop names of the many rock acts which had influenced them such as Husker Du, The Vaselines, The Who and Neil Young. Rarely, if ever, were the lads from Liverpool mentioned. The Beatles were once again finding themselves floating outside the river of mainstream tastes. It was once again time to consult the massive vault of unreleased but still widely bootlegged Beatle songs to propel the band back into the spotlight – and sell a few more million records. The Beatles performed live on BBC radio fifty-two times in their career. These live recordings represented some of the hottest bootleg material available, as there were several songs recorded for the “Beeb” which never saw release. Out of the hundreds of tracks available, sixty-nine were selected for this double disc compilation. Fans once again flew en masse to record stores in December 1994 to pick up this glossy, expensive and sadly overrated album. At arguable grunge and alternative music’s peak, the Beatles garnered themselves yet another top ten album. Although there are several gems included in the set, including a blistering version of “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” much of the collection was from the band’s early years where without the expertise of Sir George Martin production skills, the Fabs sounded like a bar-band version of their polished selves. My copy of “Live at the BBC” has remained largely unplayed in the last fifteen years. Upon retrieving it from my collection to research of this piece, it actually still smelled new.

The following year saw the Beatles reunite through studio magic (although there are unsubstantiated rumors the Maharishi was involved) to utilize a previously unreleased (but familiar to collectors) John Lennon recording, “Free as a Bird” and re-imagine it with performances from the surviving three band members. Producer, former ELO member, Traveling Wilbury and wannabe Beatle Jeff Lynne produced this track, which sounded like a mash-up before mash-ups were invented. Lennon’s vocals do not match the rest of the production, which sounded like a bizarre Beatle-compilation, with vocals from everyone but Ringo (some things never change). The song sounded like producer Lynne forgot everything he had copied from George Martin over the past two decades. At times it sounded like a Traveling Wilbury song, a McCartney song or a Harrison song but one would be hard pressed (even after a trip to Dr. Robert) to consider it a Beatles song. Fans still could not resist the appeal of any new Beatles material as “Free as a Bird” still charted in the top ten.

The Beatles once again were the apple of the music fan’s eye as the “Beatles Anthology” documentary aired during November of 1995. Designed to accompany “Free as a Bird” and three upcoming “Anthology” CD’s, the documentary succeeded in re-establishing the Fab Four as the top music act of the rock and roll era. However, much of the new interview footage (especially Paul McCartney’s) did not reveal much about the band the average fan did not already know. Many of the band’s live performances and promotional films (precursors to music videos) were chopped up or worse yet, overdubbed from the original recordings. The performances of “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” were among the last live appearances the band ever made, both of which were butchered worse than the baby dolls for the “Yesterday and Today” album cover. The Beatles had several live concerts professionally filmed over their careers including their landmark Shea Stadium concert and two Tokyo concerts which were some of their last gigs as a touring act. For some bizarro reason, little of this footage was used in its entirety. The Beatles’ promotional films are both original and fantastic, yet few of these were used for the documentary in their original forms. The live performance of “Revolution” remains one of my all-time favorite Beatle clips, yet the majority of the performance shown in the documentary overdubs the studio vocals over the live ones. Fans were left alone, the elusive Beatle bird had flown again.

1999 saw the release of the “Yellow Submarine Songtrack,” a quasi-replacement CD for the animated 1968 film. The Beatles had little involvement with the initial film, providing only a handful of new material to accompany it and a cute, cheeky cameo at the film’s end. The 1999 CD, along with the movie’s video release, and a buttload of “Yellow Submarine” merchandise, attempted to cement the film as an essential part of Beatle canon. By and large, it succeeded. I bought the new soundtrack, along with the “Yellow Submarine” toys. They were pretty darn cool but even a big Beatle fan like yours truly couldn’t quick fork over the money for the “Yellow Submarine” lunchbox. If enough unnecessary and irrelevant merchandise is for sale, even the hardcore fans tend to rebel (see KISS). The CD was the first time since 1987 Beatles songs had been remastered and they never sounded better, if better just means louder. As recording technology advanced, newer CD’s began to sound substantially louder than ones recorded ten years earlier. Most music fans love to make mix-CD’s but if the sound radically goes up and down between songs the experience of a mix becomes bothersome, if not annoying if the volume has to be adjusted constantly. The “Yellow Submarine Songtrack” put the Beatles right back at the sonic front. There was no obvious tinkering with Martin’s original mixes and the amplification made one appreciate the band’s talent even more than ever other release. Fans waited for the eventual remastering of the rest of the group’s material. They would have to wait another ten years.

In 2000, “The Beatles:1” showcasing 27 of the group’s biggest hits remastered in the fashion of “Yellow Submarine.” It seems obvious these songs were part of the same project as no other Beatle remasters were issued until September 9th of 2009. In 2006, “Love,” a remix project by Sir George Martin and his son Giles was released to accompany the Cirque De Soleil performance act celebrating the music of the Beatles. The Martins’ remix of “Come Together” was astounding, the rest of the material interesting yet fun curiosities. DJ’s had been mashing the Beatles with other artists for a decade at this point, one of the best being a mash-up of the “Revolver” album called “Revolved” and a mash album of the Beatles and Beastie Boys. Unlike artists such as Prince, Dave Matthews or Metallica, the Beatles never chose to take any legal action against those who used their music without copyright authority. In fact, it seems after forty years of Beatles bootlegs, the Fabs encourage the proliferation of their material as much as possible. The refuse to license their music to Steve Job’s iTunes empire, yet one can easily find many Beatle fanatics who have every BBC Radio session track, rare live performances, outtakes and videos. Before there was any idea of file-sharing, the Beatles understood more than any other rock act except for Bruce Springsteen, that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Some astute readers may have noticed that Elvis Presley has been left out of this essay. The simple reason the “King of Rock and Roll” is not experiencing the same popular resurgences as the Beatles is the majority of Presley’s recorded material has been released. They are contained in gigantic box sets released by RCA Records. Elvis’ complete recordings, outtakes and live have been available for a decade. Bear in mind Elvis was largely a studio singer after he returned from the army and he never wrote his own material, making fifteen takes of any song kinda redundant. Elvis was the singer, other people (Leiber and Stoller in the early years) wrote his material. Session musicians performed it. Session musicians, by their occupation, are paid to play a song as presented to them. There is no “working it out” in the studio. Elvis Presley’s Complete 50’s, 60’s and 70’s box sets are well worth looking into and purchasing. To do the same with the Beatles would require a truckload of CD’s or a massive hard drive. Many of the Beatles’ songs changed drastically during recordings whereas Presley’s did not. His Sun recordings and the 50’s box set show an artist involved with his material. After that, hidden gems are hard to find. From their onset of superstardom, the Beatles kept a close lid on their mystique, knowing as long as your name is mentioned in the media, general interest is rises and so will sales of the music.

September 9th will see the release of “Beatles Rock Band” and the long anticipated remastering of their British albums. The hype has been massive and by all inspection the game looks great. It even has new unreleased “Beatle-chatter” from Abbey Road Studio. Why should any Beatlemanic forgo this new – yet not so new release? I have several reasons for my apathy and angst towards the Fab Four’s new invasion into my wallet. In my life, I have purchase four copies of the “White Album:” the original, numbered press and a reissue on vinyl, the cassette and the CD. I’ve forked over my cash for “Sgt. Pepper,”, “ Magical Mystery Tour,” and “Abbey Road” three times: vinyl, cassette and CD. “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” twice: cassette and CD. I think I’ve paid to what amounts to a lifetime subscription for these recordings. Yet the Beatles 2009 remasters will be issued in two separate sets: one stereo, one mono, adding two more to the ever-expanding Beatle empire. Add “Beatles Rock Band” to the equation, which in addition to the 45 songs included in the game, promises to offer complete album downloads after its release. If I buy all the new “White Albums” in addition to the ones I already own, my “White Album” purchases would amount to seven. I really think this is all too much. Beatles, I’m not a rich man. Won’t you please, please help me understand why you need so much of my cash?

There is no doubt the release of the video game and the CD’s will generate interest in the Beatles, especially for those who are younger and have not heard the music in the same way previous generations have. They can take their ticket to ride to an era which may never be equaled in terms of ability, evolution and success. Enjoy it, please. Buy the game and search for your own Yoko Ono. For me and many other Beatles fans, we’re just waiting for the next revelation. No artist in history, be it poets, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers or musicians, have given so much yet held so much back within them. “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Let It Be” have yet to be released on DVD. The “Get Back” album, along with the complete rooftop performance, the last live concert the Beatles performed, has not been released in its entirety. The original Beatles U.S. records are still longed for by those who grew up with the band, yet this longing to recapture a significant portion of their youth has gone unfulfilled. The complete Shea Stadium and Tokyo concerts are still in the vaults, waiting for new fans to see the live phenomenon of the Beatles. The great promo films still sit there, too, marking a band aware of their impact of a T.V. audience and a means of making a song much more than just a song. The kiddie animated cartoon is still guarded by top Liverpool men, wanting to tell you why the psychedelic songs don’t fit the black suits and bowl haircuts. The Beatles leave us their loving, but scatter our desires of understanding them across their universe. They may have given us the love they made, but they continue to want us to spend our money so bad. As the 21st Century unfolds, Beatlemania, no matter how phony, will never bite the dust.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"All In"

“It’s a bitch convincing people to like you.” – The Scissor Sisters.

Poker is a fascinating game. The 2000’s have seen a massive spike in the card game’s general popularity, culminating with weekly nights of Texas Hold-em at pretty much any bar and quite a few weekend parties as well. Its appeal to mass audiences is somewhat confounding, considering the general randomness of the game. Texas Hold-‘em poker can even be seen of ESPN on a regular basis and provides the viewer with a wide variety of characters who are “professional” players. They come from all walks of life. Some are lifetime gamblers, some internet moguls, mathematicians or even carpenter’s wives. The success of the individual gambler depends more on their ability to gauge their opponents’ hands and being able to master the art of the bluff, fooling other players about the true contents of your hand. Kenny Rogers put it perfectly in his 1978 classic song, The Gambler: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away and know when to run.” The main problem with poker’s mainstream popularity (and the main impetus for the public’s waning interest) is many players tend to ignore the last part of Mr. Rogers’ advice. The tendency to go “all in;” to put all your chips on the line during one hand is far too tempting. The sad result for many players is an overestimation of the odds and the eradication of their bank account. Even if there is not a cloud in the sky, sometimes the rain must fall.

There is little difference these days between poker players and politicians, except one expects most poker players to lie. In 2008, the United States was in the midst of its first election cycle where the statements of candidates were immediately recorded for posterity on You Tube, numerous political websites and blogs. The advent of cell phone cameras and DVD recorders assured even the most innocent and innocuous of blunders could be broadcast immediately to the entire world. The gamble politicians used to make was to promise the voting populace everything and anything they could; the rationale being the average voter has a short-term memory and broken promises and nasty attacks could be explained away with quickie lines attacking the opposing party. This philosophy worked for decades until 2008. It became dangerous to use a slanderous attack ad on your opponent and fatal to be caught lying. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was permanently damaged by her false claims of dodging sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia. Senator Elizabeth Dole’s campaign, seen as a safe win at the time, was derailed by an attack ad on her opponent, which implied she was an atheist. Worse yet was the footage broadcast from several rallies by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, which showed several people voicing hateful and false accusations toward his opponent, Barack Obama.

McCain’s campaign gambled that Sarah Palin’s continual attacks on Obama’s patriotism would catch on not only with the Republican base, but cause doubt in the voting public’s eye on Mr. Obama’s fitness for the highest office in the land. The widespread broadcast of racist hatemongers on national television and the internet forced the McCain camp to back down on their aggressive tactics and ultimately limped into a massive defeat on Election Day. Conversely, Mr. Obama held his political hand tight, refusing to enter major confrontations and choosing to rely on vague promises of “change” and “hope.” Ironically, his running mate, Joe Biden, saw his presidential ambitions end early in 2008 due to comments made about the future President of the United States. A poker player can only hold their hand for so long before being forced to enter the fray, a fact that has become all too evident for Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden as they enter the final third of their first year running the country.

The appeal of watching poker on television is the ability to see the hands of all the players and seeing the drama unfold before your eyes. Some players win with two pair, some lose with a straight. It would not be surprising if President Obama was an avid viewer of these games, given his ambitious unrolling of his agenda. Obama won the presidency largely because of his connection to voters via the internet. It would be foolish to think these people would accept the new president putzing around after promising so many things to American citizens. He was now forced to play his hand, regardless of the contents. One by one, the cards were put on the table for the entire world to judge. Stimulus: not too stimulating. Purchasing an automobile company on the taxpayer dollar: faulty spark plugs. Insuring America’s children through cigarette tax increases: a carcinogen worth inhaling. Closing Guantanamo Bay without actually closing it: worthless. Whacking a fly on national TV: super-cool. President Obama’s hand was a political full house. A hand capable of winning but still susceptible to defeat providing the opponent has a strong hand to counter.

Fortunately for Mr. Obama, his Republican opponents seem to have a two-pair hand at best and no face cards to show for it. The Republican counter to the stimulus was more tax cuts: been there, done that for eight years. Purchase of Government Motors: a fold. Taxing cigarettes to insure poor kids: fold again. Closing Gitmo and not closing it: the Joker’s out there somewhere and we better keep him at bay – even up. Killing a fly for public amusement: Unlikely partnership with PETA. The GOP tends to have a similar response to the Obama agenda. A table-talking bluff stating “my hand’s better than yours, but I’m not going to show it. But it’s better than yours. Nyahh, nyahh. Taunting is an expected, if not integral part of a card game, but eventually a player has to back up their gab. Eventually your opponent will call your bluff. It’s not very bright or respectable to ramp up the pot based on a low-end two pair hand. Sadly, this is Mr. Obama’s opposition. By encouraging this reckless behavior in his opponents, Obama has positioned himself for a win even if his game is weak. It has been said throughout the ages that a competitor is only as good as one’s opponent. If this is taken to a modern application, the President needs only a better two pair hand than the pathetic one held by his opponents.

President Obama’s political poker prowess was never more evident than his appointment of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Before the appointment was announced, it was largely believed Obama would appoint a woman or a minority to the high court. The hand was his; all his GOP counterparts had to do was anticipate and counter. Obama was ready for this and appointed Ms. Sotomayor. Given his knowledge of the internet, the president and his staff were most likely aware of her “wise Latina woman” statement and were well informed of her controversial decision to uphold affirmative action policy to the detriment of several New Jersey firefighters. Obama and his staff knew Sotomayor would be opposed with extremist rhetoric and the conservative elite fell for his bait. Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, along with talk radio madman Rush Limbaugh, called Sotomayor a racist, not the best language if you want to endear the growing Latino population to your party. Once again, Obama held the rest of his cards, refusing to jump into this dialogue. Although Sotomayor’s position on affirmative action was controversial, it was overshadowed by extremist comments and accusations from the far right. Mr. Gingrich, who many have believed to be contemplating a presidential run against Obama in 2012, has crippled himself by alienating a voting base he needs to remotely be seen as a viable candidate. The state of Florida has a massive Latino population and it will be highly unlikely many of them will vote for a candidate who called the first Latino Supreme Court Justice a racist. It is almost mathematically impossible for anyone to win the presidency if they lose New York, California and Florida. Good luck with that pair of 7’s, Newt. It just ain’t happening.

Barack Obama continues to play his political hand, risking the viability of his presidency on health care reform. It is a bet that is largely seen as a no-win, making more citizens angry than those who would be appeased. He is playing with billion-dollar big boys, whose lobbies have thwarted each and every attempt to step on their turf. This political poker game has never been seen as winnable and tends to result in a backlash of fear of change from American citizens, as those knowledgeable with the Clinton administration’s health care initiative from 1994 would attest to. One of the main accusations leveled at Obama and his gang of meddling kids is why would they attempt so much so soon? The Scooby crew only solved one mystery at a time, why should the Mystery Machine think they need to multi-task? The Web 2.0 reality needs Scooby Doo at that famous poker table. If he just sits at the back of the bus eating sandwiches with Shaggy, nothing gets done except for full stomachs and inflated egos. President Obama has chosen to be involved until the mystery is solved. Hang around for health reform!

In 2008, almost every candidate for higher office, from the states to the congress to the senate to the presidency, campaigned on helping average citizens with their medical bills. All of them, Republican, Democrat or Independent, stated they were going to make things better. Most of them never said explicitly how they were going to do it, but it was a major part of their platform. A hand held up as a bluff, hoping they would not be called to show ideologically nothing. As the health care debate continues to rage (in more ways than one), it has become obvious to even those most novice at political games the majority of our elected officials are far too interested in preserving their own political skin (financially and electorally) than to act on their bluffing postures to actually fix something.

One of the worst of these poseurs is Senator Arlen Specter, newly a Democrat – used to be a Republican - and now just plain old, who was foolish enough to state in a public forum he had not read the health care bill. Any political guru will say it is commonplace for an elected official to delegate something as minute as reading a 1,000 – plus page bill to staffers and just be given the “Cliff’s Notes” version. It is one thing to perform this act of ignorance, it is another to state said ignorance to your constituents, assuming they will completely understand you have better things to do than the actual job you were elected for. Specter was exposed as a political charlatan, leaving no doubt the reason he switched party affiliations was only for his own best interests. Justifying ignorance is like a poker player requesting a misdeal because they left the card table for a potty break. If your hand sucks, it sucks. Period. If you make a mistake, it’s part of living life in the real world. Deal with it. No amount of fundraising, babbling or special interests will save Senator Specter from an almost certain defeat in the upcoming 2010 primary. Sadly, Specter will probably use his decades of special interest connections and influences and run independently as Senator Joe Lieberman did in 2006. Some folks just don’t know when the dealing is done and they no longer have a winnable hand. Good poker players know when to walk away. Career politicians unfortunately do not.

Residing right next to Mr. Specter is a doghouse. A Blue Dog house to be precise. Blue Dog is a term used to describe junior Democratic House members that were elected not on principals, but on the generic “not Bush” platform, which worked sold well to a voting public tired of war and a collapsed economy, but not as effectively with their congressional cohorts. These supposed “Blue Dogs” are really the “Yellow Dogs:” so afraid of losing their seat they would prefer to have literally nothing happen during their terms in office so they can state they accomplished something. The “Yellow Dogs” are the United States of Godot. Nothing to be done. Nothing to be done. They are the poker player who chooses to stay in the game, never commit to winning or losing, but long to ride out the hand just to stay in the game. The only significant difference between the “Yellow Dogs” and Senator Specter is the “Yellow Dogs” apparently know how to read. One can only stonewall for so long, however. There comes a time when you have to play your hand, even if you have no idea what to do with it. The “Yellow Dogs” aren’t out for publicity (a red herring) but have united for survival. If doing nothing except waiting is an attribute, it should be suggested that tax dollars would be saved if the ghost of Samuel Beckett would be elected as a proxy instead of these handful of boremongers standing around the Washington tree, one that is easily chopped down by those of more intellectual and intestinal fortitude.

All games, be it politics, poker, capitalism or communism always have some players who want to play the game as recklessly as possible. These individuals want to win, have little knowledge on how to traditionally do so, but play the game with the utmost fire, piss and vinegar. This is the player who brings their queen out on the third chess move, bets too much on a pair of Jacks and saves all their cash up to buy Boardwalk and Park Place. These folks don’t win very often but they make the games dangerous for those who play with them. These players do not want to win on the gentleman’s terms but choose to adopt a position of annihilation versus risk. Their philosophy is “all in” every game. Win or lose, they take it to the extreme without regard to their partners or opponents. These are the people you wouldn’t play “tag” with on the playground for fear they would shove you to the pavement just to prove a point. These boys and girls grow up, true believers, and they become the person most likely to succeed in stealing your parking spot or the last cup of coffee in the office. This philosophy could be taken as anarchistic, but it is a belief filled with nihilism. The idiom of “malice towards all” has shown itself in our great country like a beaten bully out for revenge or a defeated poker player crying fowl to the dealer.

There is an inherent defiance in many people when the game turns against their favor. It wasn’t me – someone cheated. Call for a mis-deal on a contingency only the objecting party seems to know about. I didn’t land on the giant leap in Chutes and Ladders – it must be Obama’s fault. I lost my turn on Candyland – Obama’s to blame. I played the Game of Life and had five kids and didn’t get my mansion – dammit, Obama, you suck! I want my Candyland country back! If you don’t give it to me, I’m going to knock the pieces down and restart the game until I get what I want. You cheated. I’m not sure how but I know you did – otherwise I would have won. This is the platform of the “Birthers,” who believe President Obama is an illegal alien and therefore should not be President of the United States. Without an electoral count to hold in question, as Democrats alleged in 2000 for George Bush, the losing faction has chose to invent a story to give their defeated ranks adrenaline.

The term “Birthers” is the term applied to the ultra right-wing nut-jobs who believe President Obama is not really the president as he actually born in the African country of Kenya. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the “Birther” movement has ground in the small populace of disaffected Americans (a clear majority of which are older, un-educated and white) tapping into the same fears held by the extreme left-wingers who believe the United States orchestrated 9/11. Even conservative pundit Ann Coulter has come out against this extremism. However, “Birthers” and 9/11 conspiracy loonies should have one thing in common: George W. Bush was not the President of the United States from 2001-2008: pretty much the whole country knows the real president was Dick Cheney.

“We’re not into music, we’re into chaos” – The Sex Pistols

Worst of all poker players (and gamers in general) are those who really don’t care. They may want to win but revel most in watching other players lose, forcing them to make plays which are completely illogical just to counter the general challenge to the rules of the game. This can be fun for a while, until the game night goes on for a few hours and the other players begin to realize the “joker” only wishes to prolong the agony as long as humanly possible. Music lovers cherish the myth of the Sex Pistols as revolutionaries and anarchists, but without the cold calculations of band manager Malcolm McLaren and the producing skills of Chris Thomas, it is unlikely one of the greatest rock and roll bands in history would have achieved this celebrated notoriety. Listening to their demo recordings can be compared to the irrational ramblings of a certain ex-governor of Alaska. Garbled, unfocused and lacking structure, Sarah Palin’s recent Facebook post describing “death panels” President Obama would incorporate under health care reform, succeeded in both shocking and alienating the masses. There’s something there, but it’s hard to conclude exactly what that something is, except for a rank amateur broadcasting a demo recording which should have definitely stayed in the friendly confines of a garage or basement. Defending Sarah Palin’s hate rhetoric is the musical equivalent of comparing G.G. Allin to the Beatles. It is plausible Allin’s fans have the same attitude towards chaos and outlandishness as Palin: angry, with a desire to break something for the simple reason that they can.

Uber-conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh has played into the “death panel” rhetoric, beginning to compare President Obama to Adolf Hitler and his policies to Nazism. Like the music of the aforementioned G.G. Allin, the listener tends to know what they’re going to get when they tune in. The problem is there are real disaffected individuals who are starting to hum this hate symphony in their sleep. G.G. Allin has a place in music, but probably not on the Teen Choice awards. Mr. Limbaugh has the inalienable right to express his opinion to his listeners. However, he does not have the legal right to encourage or incite any individual to commit acts of vandalism or violence. With the spraying of a swastika on a Georgia congressman’s office, he is dangerously close to crossing that line.

In defense of Mr. Limbaugh and his millions of listeners, 99 percent who have no probable desire to cause violence, Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer did nothing but fuel this fire by condemning American citizens at public town hall meetings. Bear in mind, true believers, there were many protesters from the advent of the Iraq war to the present day who were escorted or arrested exercising the same constitutional rights the “Birthers,” the “death panelists” and those who fear excessive government intrusion are using right now. They are finding themselves decrying the same tactics universally supported just a few years before. If we were to convert the actions of all the aforementioned players in this essay to a televised poker game, we would see a game filled with bluffing, lies and the proverbial card up the sleeve. There is no clear leader, only the continual raising of the ante with no expected winner. Any poker player will tell you a game isn’t worth playing if the integrity of its rules are called into question. Our politicians and pundits have exposed the 21st Century political game as a sham. They are not only going walking away, but running. The question remains what and who will they run to when it all goes down.

The heart of the American people should never be called into question. We are an exceptionally diverse group of individuals. Most of us take our neighbors at face value, believing that even if we disagree, we still wish the best for one another. Somewhere out there, we’re really not that different if we’re under the same flag of stripes and stars. Our leaders are the newest stars in our reality universe. It might have been ok when these political poker games were played behind closed doors. This sham of our government has exposed itself as willing to gamble with the health, freedom, intelligence and the collective integrity of the United States of America. It does not matter anymore if a health care bill is passed or defeated, when faith of citizens in good government is disintegrated and faith in the conscience of our fellow man becomes a measure of doubt, we all lose.