Saturday, January 31, 2009

Why I Love The Super Bowl!

I’m not the biggest football fan. Those who know me pretty well can verify that on any given Sunday, I’m lucky to be able to name twenty active NFL players (including Brett Favre – even my 90-year old grandma knows who he is). I do catch about five or six games a year and understand the game well, I just prefer baseball. However, I caught maybe 1 ½ games of the World Series (literally – I watched the infamous rain game) but I never miss the Super Bowl. Admittedly, I can’t even name any of the players involved except the quarterbacks (David Lee Roth and Werner Herzog, if memory serves). But as many of you know, the Super Bowl is more than just a game: it’s America’s Christmas.

The Super Bowl is better than Christmas in so many ways. You don’t have to bust your butt in the kitchen for days on end baking cookies, decorating a tree and fixing a gigantic turkey or pig. Super Bowl parties tend to be filled with burgers, brats and beer. Bags of chips, veggies and baked beans surround the buffet table, ready for mass consumption. Nobody dresses up for the Super Bowl. In fact, people tend to dress in clothes that can easily absorb the myriad of ketchup, beer and bean spillage. No one cares if you make a mess – it’s the Super Bowl! Making a mess of yourself, mentally and physically is a time-honored tradition (possibly invented by Joe Namath in 1969). The Super Bowl party tends to be better than the game itself. If the Pittsburgh Steelers are up by 24 points or more in the second quarter tomorrow, who’s actually going to watch the rest? Super Bowl parties are like the family Christmases we want to have. You don’t have to invite your snotty in-laws or your backwards cousins, just those who you really want to spend this magic time with that only comes once a year. The Super Bowl is Christmas without all the b.s. At least no one is depressed before the game

I think it’s great so many people watch the Super Bowl who don’t understand football. Half the fun is listening to haphazard commentary resembling John Madden attempting to describe a dance recital. Take it easy on those people; it’s all in good fun. If their inept interjections become too much to bear, offer them another brewski, maybe two or three. Who knows? You might be treated to an extra half-time show. It’s hard to tell who possesses an "inner Janet Jackson". Superbowl Sunday is a great time to find out.

The Super Bowl half-time show is a time honored tradition of spectacle and this year will prove no exception. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are performing. The Boss has never turned in a sub-par performance in his 35-plus years as a musician. There is intense speculation surrounding his potential song selection, so much in fact, sports pundits have given odds on several songs. As a die-hard Springsteen fan, I’ll offer my picks and odds of the particular songs being played. “Born In the U.S.A”: 5-1. An 80’s anthem grossly misinterpreted by Ronald Reagan, the song is guaranteed to make a certain Alaskan governor pump her fist. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Atlantic City”: 15-1. Springsteen wrote many songs over his career describing the evaporation of the middle class, eliminated jobs and the downtrodden. It would not surprise me to hear one of these songs, but still a longshot. “Glory Days”: 8-1. It would be pretty cheesy to play it, but the Boss does know his audience. “Brilliant Disguise”: 50-1. Nobody wants to be reminded their relationship is failing, especially on Super Bowl Sunday. “Candy’s Room”: 500-1. It’s my favorite Springsteen song and I’d love to hear it. My “inner Linus” has faith. “My Lucky Day”: 3-1. It’s his new song and Bruce always has faith in his new material. Justifiably so, the song is a joyful pop masterpiece from an artist who has earned the right to proclaim his happiness to the world. “Born to Run”: 1-1. As a great mentor of mine would say: “Well, duh!” Contact your bookies, true believers. My predictions are known far and wide to be accurate. Incidentally, for those looking for the inside edge on the actual game, my prediction: Steelers over Cardinals, 35-17.

The ads during the Super Bowl are also a highly anticipated part of our American Christmas. What’s more American than gluing yourself to the T.V. to watch a commercial? This year’s batch of ads are especially intriguing, given our current economic climate. I’m very curious to see if we’ve paid for any of these commercials. Trust me, if Citigroup is stupid enough to attempt to purchase a corporate jet with our tax dollars, they’ll probably be dumb enough to advertise tomorrow. I’m pleased to note General Motors has announced they will not be buying ad time, which puts me in the ironic position of giving them kudos for not doing anything. That said, I’ll offer my predictions of celebrity appearances in tomorrow’s commercials, which is all that anyone cares about anyway. Justin Timberlake: 4-1. Joe “The Plumber”: 25-1. William Shatner: 6-1. Barack Obama: 3-1. Joan Rivers: 1,000,000 -1.

The Super Bowl is the one holiday that is truly American. We should relish the time we have to party with our friends and family, even if it is just once a year. As the game progresses, make sure you give a “high five” to those who’ve spent the time providing the gorgeous feast, washing all the dishes and throwing all those empty beers in the garbage. They make the party happen so the rest of you can enjoy the big game. Let them know you appreciate it. Make sure you provide an extra bed or a safe ride for those who began the party at 10 A.M. Good teammates have each others’ back. Show good sportsmanship and shake hands or give a hug to those who lost the game, an argument or their senses. In a time of uncertainty, we should cherish those around us; remember their smiles and pumping fists. Friendship itself is a trophy, a victory over despondence. Hold it high and celebrate! Let’s show the world what America is really made of.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Grappling With Reality in "The Wrestler"

I once used pro-wrestling to break up a relationship. Although I cared for her deeply, I felt it was the right thing to do if I wanted her to be happy. I was a nervous wreck, afraid of the future and the prospect of “growing up.” She didn’t deserve to be sucked into my problems and I was too chicken to tell her. That’s a cop-out answer, of course, but sometimes life is filled with cop-outs.

Many years ago, pro-wrestling was at its peak, attracting over fifteen million viewers per week. As a long time fan, I could describe in detail the intricate dance performed by the most talented of performers. However, wrestling has the stereotype of being followed by mostly beer-guzzling morons who believe every second is real. For one night, I chose to become one of those guys. I pounded down cans of smelly beer (probably Grain Belt) and rooted enthusiastically for the Undertaker. One of my least favorite performers, the Undertaker epitomizes much of what pro-wrestling is ridiculed for: a possibly undead dude with too much goth make-up that rises like a zombie when he’s out for the count as if he has unnatural super-powers. More beers and fake appreciation followed. I soon achieved my goal, even though it was a bittersweet achievement. I guess it wasn’t that hard to pretend to be in a state of retarded adolescence, which probably says more about me than I’d really like to admit.

Similarly, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, the wrestler in Darren Aronofsky’s heartbreaking film “The Wrestler”, longs to go back to the world of the 1980’s where good guys (Americans) fought bad guys (Iranians) and the party never ends. Randy “The Ram”, played to perfection by Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke, was a head-liner 25 years ago but lost all his earnings through mismanagement and partying. Aronofsky only implies this but any research into the history of pro-wrestling reveals Randy’s situation to be the norm and not the exception. Any skeptics are encouraged to look up the rise and fall of Jake “The Snake” Roberts for further validation. “The Wrestler” begins with a small house show at a school gym where Randy “The Ram” is the headliner to entertain a crowd of hundreds, far removed from the big arenas of his prime. Aronofsky shows the backstage comradery before the performance, which is similar to prepping for a play or dance. The performers discuss the choreography, shake hands and wish each other well. After the event, we see Randy hunched over in a corner, alone and in pain, collecting his thoughts in an elementary school classroom.

Occasionally, we are taken into the remnants of Randy’s “80’s” world as he plays with local children in the trailer park where he lives. He wrestles with them and invites a boy to play an old 8-bit Nintendo-esque game where Randy himself is one of the fighters. He chooses to play himself, in a sad juxtaposition of what his life has become. In my review of “Revolutionary Road”, I described the Wheelers as people who are unwilling to accept a potential mundane existence. Conversely, Randy “The Ram” was a star and chooses to hold on to that fading reality even if that means having nothing else in his life at all.

Randy’s life, like the Wheelers’, takes an unexpected turn and he his forced to confront a reality different from the one he has been living most of his life. We root for him as he befriends and woos a local stripper (Oscar-nominee Marisa Tomei). Their most affecting scene occurs when the two are having drinks, longing for the glory days of 80’s party music before “that Cobain guy” ruined everything. This could be taken as a throwaway line but I know way too many people who believe this with the fervor of Southern Baptists on a Sunday. Aronsofsky inserts several classic “hair-band” songs into the film, most of which by bands who have coincidentally squandered their fame and fortune, winding up performing in places similar to Randy. A few years ago, I noticed a sign advertising the band Warrant, headlining a bar in a strip mall. I did not make that up (how could I). A mediocre strip mall in Columbia Heights, Minnesota once witnessed the decades-old glory of the mighty Warrant.

Randy also attempts to get a “real” job, working at a deli counter. His bleached blond tresses scrunched beneath a hairnet, he looks ordinary. Several close-ups of Rourke during this scene show how battered he his; a minimum wage, almost-homeless 50 year old just trying to make a living. Randy makes the most of his situation and becomes “The Ram”, gracefully gliding behind the counter, flipping containers in the air and entertaining customers with his decades-hewn charm. Aronofsky gets us rooting for him in a way directly similar to Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky”. A good guy with a few bad breaks, how can you not cheer for the underdog, hoping he wins the love of a girl and gets one more shot at the big time?

Yet, Randy “The Ram” is not Rocky Balboa. Although Rocky had several family issues throughout the six “Rocky” films, there was never any doubt of the love he had for them (even old, drunk Uncle Paulie). Randy Robinson, the man, has a daughter, Stephanie, he has barely talked to and has consistently disappointed for possibly twenty years. Randy attempts to reconcile with her, although she is reluctant to accept his affection. She is obviously bitter, but her love (and desire to be loved) by her father overcomes her skepticism along with Randy’s trademark good-guy charm. Everyone wants the friendship, company and laughter of someone they lost. Even if it’s just for a second, it’s nice to know they care. Stephanie is no exception as she accepts her father’s presents like a child who never had one perfect Christmas.

Just as we are thinking our wrestling “Rocky” has won the day and will continue his triumphant return to the big time, he fails in a way that makes us question his integrity and our perception of him. Aronofsky pulls our veil off, making us wonder who exactly we went on this journey with and make us question our sympathy for Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Now that we’ve followed him back into the ring, do we really want him to win? As he “high-fives” his adoring fans, do we extend ours or leave the arena in disappointment? Aronofsky masterfully gives the audience both options, depending on the level of empathy.

Maybe sometimes we aren’t meant to know the future, only glimpses and snap-shots in dreamscape seconds. We see what we want to see and leave the rest up to gut instinct. A victory can be a defeat, or vice versa, depending on your point of view. Randy “The Ram’s” life is filled with both anomalies. Unlike pro-wrestling, his fate is not determined by bookers in the backstage but in our guts. Our experiences in life change us, shape our thoughts, beliefs and sympathies as we grow. How we’ve lived our life and the people whose lives we’ve affected or been affected by guides our interpretation of Randy’s fate. Is there a hero, a loser, a rock star, a clerk, a dancer, a stripper, a child, a parent in all of us? How do we assemble the puzzle? Do we leave anything out? Should we remember the good times or the bad? Is there solace in the future or fear of the past? As we leap off the top rope with Randy, we may not know if we succeed or fail, only that we did the best we could, fate be damned.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Table Talk"

Playing card games with a partner is tricky. It doesn’t matter if the game is Euchre, Spades, or Magic The Gathering, partners have the challenge of communicating with each other but still not explicitly revealing their hands. Good partners can reveal their intentions with a raised eyebrow, a deep sigh or other body language. Many use vague phrasing such as “I can get you one” or “No help here.” The caveat is to not actually tell your partner (and the other players) what is really is your hand. To do so, risks the integrity of the game and is certain to incite the wrath of your opponents. “Table talk”, as it is commonly called, has a set of unwritten rules that tends to be determined by the game players themselves.

Ironically, the first rule established by the card players is always “no table talk”. Although strict enforcement of the rule is rarely followed, players agree on its concept before the first hand is dealt. As the game playing progresses, the rule is flexed, bended and usually broken completely by somebody. The accused player sometimes apologizes, feigns innocence and sometimes gets really angry. The anger doesn’t come from being caught, however. It is usually stemmed from the knowledge that all players were engaging in some form of “table talk” but for some reason they were singled out as the violator. Accusing a card player of “table talk” rarely depends if they player is winning or losing, just a general frustration of their behavior during the game.

Like card playing, politicians have engaged in “table talk” since the beginning of democracy itself. Again, the rules are implicit and unspoken. What are lobbyists if not professional table talkers? If Congressman X looks the other way while a chemical company dumps their toxic waste next to a school playground, he or she is certain to get a sizable financial contribution for their next campaign. All of this is completely illegal, providing there is actual evidence to support the claim of unjust influence. Given the substantial amount of money involved in this chicanery, surely more than a few people know about these underhanded deals. However, all the players tend to stay silent. What is discussed at the card table, stays there.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has had the misfortune of being singled out at the political game and accused of “table talk.” Blagojevich is accused of attempting to sell President Obama’s U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. Supposedly, there are hours of F.B.I. wiretapping tapes to support this. There’s no question Blagojevich did a bad and possibly quite illegal thing. The problem with the governor’s activity isn’t the fact that he tried to sell Obama’s seat (which I’m pretty darn sure he did) but the incessant fingerpointing by hundreds of politicians who have engaged in similar activities. I’m willing to bet Senator Ted Kennedy was constantly contacting New York Governor David Patterson, lobbying for his niece Caroline to be appointed Senator. There is no concrete proof, of course (silence by all players at the card table) but how else can her candidacy be taken so seriously when she had literally no political experience and seemed clueless during interviews? Ted Kennedy is reportedly furious Caroline withdrew her name from consideration for the Senate seat. My “inner Fox Mulder” suspects several high-ranking politicians and businessmen spent quite a bit of the last month harassing Patterson on Caroline’s (or Ted’s) behalf. What Governor Patterson was offered (implicitly or explicitly) will never be known or proven, unless his conversations were also wiretapped. Wait a minute, didn’t George Bush and Dick Cheney have everyone wiretapped? Hmmm…something’s not right here.

The question that’s been itching at my brain since Governor Blagojevich’s arrest does not revolve around his actions but why someone or some people would choose to single him out over all the other dirty politicians we have elected in supposed good faith. What did he do that annoyed the other players so much that he would have to be singled out and eliminated from the game? My “inner Fox Mulder” has identified a specific incident that more than likely was the impetus for Blagojevich’s undoing. On December 8th, 2008, Blagojevich suspended all state financial dealings with Bank of America until they agreed to pay severance to approximately 200 workers at Republic Windows and Doors. Although Bank of America had received billions in government bailout money, they refused to lend any of it to Republic Windows and Doors so the company could pay the discharged workers money that was legally theirs. Coincidentally, the following day, December 9th, Blagojevich was arrested and Bank of America agreed to pay the workers. Bank of America is currently the largest bank in the United States, with probably enough money and political influence to arrest my Grandma if they wanted to. We’re talking a billion-dollar bank with billion-dollar connections and all the perks that come with it. Having Blagojevich use a power play with them must have been infuriating, possibly enough so to pull political strings and have the government arrest the Illinois Governor, using tapes that supposedly the F.B.I. has on most of us (especially politicians).

Rod Blagojevich’s refusal to resign or stay quiet is either the actions of a delusional lunatic or those of a card player who revealed too much of his hand, despite tolerating similar actions by other players. Democrats (and probably Republicans) want him to go away faster than Billy Carter and Roger Clinton combined. The longer Blagojevich keeps the governorship, the more likely he may spill the beans about other individuals involved in the “pay to play” scandal. A kangaroo court may certainly impeach him, but his removal from office could be constitutionally questionable, especially if he pursues his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts will have much more substantive issues to consider than the correct wordiness of the Presidential Oath of Office. Roberts and the other justices may have to decide what constitutes a fair game of cards and issue a statement on the validity of “table talk” itself. Chess, anyone?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Can 50,000,000 Barack Obama Fans Be Wrong?

I woke up this morning in the Bizzaro World. The news networks were no longer spouting economic doom alongside stories of lost jobs and eradicated savings. It seems I was transported into a different America, one filled with hope and promise. Although we are riding the inaugural starship, it’s a little easy to get knee deep in all the hoopla. After the November election, I wrote that it was everyone’s right to celebrate the night of Barack Obama’s historic victory. It takes much more courage to stand with and support the unknown than something which is established. As on election night, I fully respect the right for those who supported Obama during the election to enjoy all the current pomp and circumstance surrounding his inauguration. However, there are going to be many people at these inaugural parties who did not support Obama but are attending the inauguration for personal status, to see and be seen, which is downright pompous.

The majority of the media’s coverage of Obama’s inauguration I’ve seen thus far is business as usual, covering the celebrities and beautiful people attending the festivities. I do not for one second, doubt the impact and significance of Obama’s inauguration on the African-American community, many of whom are making pilgrimages to Washington to witness a moment they never thought they would see. Larry King isn’t interviewing these folks, however. He’s way too busy chatting up Sheryl Crow.

When the inaugural balls and parties throughout America are in full swing Tuesday night, are the news networks going to go to Chicago’s south side to a bar party, where the celebration will be quite genuine? Or will they lurk inside ritzy hotels, photographing a wealthy crowd who will be predominately white and probably cares less about the poor people Obama pledges to help than their failing investments? My Adam Koeppe Simple Math has estimated at least ten percent of people who plan on stylin’ and profilin’ at these parties either voted for John McCain or didn’t bother to vote at all. I bet you can even find someone who can’t tell you anything about Abraham Lincoln except that he is on the five dollar bill (psst: they’ll be the ones cheering the loudest). If you’re at home right now, selecting your jewelry or cuff-links with care, setting your iPhone to Facebook and Twitter your experience, booking reservations at the party where you can meet that certain someone, primping and prepping uncooperative children on proper behavior – THIS IS YOU (psst: they’re the ones buying all the Obama merch).

We’ve seen these types of people before, true believers. In the sporting world, they are known as “fair-weather fans”. Everyone has encountered this type of species before. When the hard-luck, local team finally puts together a winning season, they’re the ones who are first to sport a championship tee shirt, yet somehow can’t name more than two players on the team. “Fair-weather fans” tend to cheer the loudest, yet avoid any in-depth discussion regarding the team they profess to adore. Not surprisingly, if the hometown team doesn’t win the big one, they are the first to discard their expensive jerseys and go back to following American Idol. If you are attending an inaugural party with good intentions, have a good time and enjoy the historic moment. Just watch who you dance with.

The thousands of earnest Americans who choose to participate in Obama’s coronation are encouraged to party hardy – but with a specific caveat. If you can afford to attend, great. Your revelry helps the economy and provides a needed stimulus for the retail/service sector. In doing so, however, you are implicitly forfeiting your right to complain about your finances if you blow thousands of dollars on inauguration day. If you can’t afford your house payment next month due to partying with the beautiful people, you aren’t part of “change” but are a portion of the problem that President Obama pledges to fix. Change, like life itself, is ambiguous, unknowable and doesn’t happen overnight. I’m pretty sure Barack Obama is not going to let you write off your party dress on your taxes. We all bear a part in the country’s economic problem. The solutions do not (and should not) lay on the shoulders of one person.

When the inaugural hangover subsides, there are several sobering issues surrounding Barack Obama’s administration. Many of his supporters are operating under a delusion in regards to several of his cabinet picks, forgiving discretions that George Bush’s administration was crucified for. Obama’s Attorney General Nominee, Eric Holder, was a key figure in Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, an indicted tax evader who was charged with 51 counts of tax fraud before fleeing the country. Tim Geithner, Obama’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, failed to pay over $40,000 in taxes until it was politically expedient for him to do so. The potential political fallout of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and the full extent of “pay to play” has yet to be resolved.

To his credit, Barack Obama called Geithner’s tax issues “an embarrassment” and Holder apologized profusely for his involvement in Marc Rich’s pardon. Obama has shown thus far that he is breaking away from the George Bush style of cronyism, holding his staff accountable for their actions. However, if “pay to play” is indeed the name of the game, Obama will be faced with many challenges if he wishes to maintain his campaign promise of transparency. How will he react if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is once again attacked by imaginary sniper-fire? Of greater concern is Obama’s reluctance to address the massive fraud perpetrated by Bernard Madoff, who is just one of many individuals currently indicted for ponzi schemes which have destroyed the county’s confidence in Wall Street and financial sector. If Obama proposes longer prison terms and bigger fines for those who have participated in the complete raping of Americans’ finances, he is surely to run into opposition from many of the same folks who are dancing in the limelight celebrating his inauguration.

Barack Obama takes the faith and hope of all Americans with him when he ascends the Presidency. As he makes his historic speech (trust me, it’s gonna be good), Obama bears the weight of his many promises on his shoulder. It is my hope that he makes good on them, regardless of political consequences. His popularity compared to his Democratic colleagues in Congress should provide sufficient leverage when the special-interest, lobbying vultures come calling. It will take great fortitude, but he has shown his mettle thus far. As for the future, time, as always, will tell. My message to President Obama after the election was “May the Force be with you.” I stand by that statement with one addendum: Beware the Dark Side. Dangerous, it is.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Generation X's "Revolutionary Road"

Growing up sucks. Ask any teenager or anyone about their teenage years. Growing older sucks, too. Ask anyone working at a crappy job they feel they can’t quit (if they still have a job). Responsibility, life-planning or whatever you call it, catches up with most of us, sooner or later. Admirably, many of us “buck up” when responsibility comes calling, get that sucky job that puts bread on the table, buy the cookie-cutter house in a gingerbread neighborhood and raise a family in a more or less normal fashion. I’m not that type of guy. I also discovered many friends who despise this part of adulthood as well. I’m certain many of our parents may have had similar feelings, but “Generation X” is being dragged into this part of life kicking and screaming.

“Revolutionary Road”, the powerful film by Sam Mendes, can be seen as an allegory of the internal struggles experienced by “Gen Xers” as we enter middle age. Although the film is set in the 1950’s, it is less about the setting than the two leads played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The actors, both “Gen Xers” are in top form as Frank and April Wheeler, a couple struggling to accept their mundane existence. April is a failed actress, who loathes the traditional housewife role. Frank is an office worker whose work depresses him so much he has affairs to feel alive. April devises a plan to move to Paris, where she will become the breadwinner and Frank will have time to figure out what he wants to do with his life, a dilemma very much associated with Generation X. Many of us still have no idea what we really want out of life, except to not become a robotic tool.

Frank is liberated by the concept of Paris, begins taking more risks at his job, which ironically results in a promotion. April starts packing up their things and starts planning the move. The couple becomes enthralled with the idea of escaping “Revolutionary Road” until a life-changing incident shatters their dream and their relationship falls apart. Reality collides with fantasy and they are forced to confront the realization that they may just be like everybody else, confined to the normal life embraced by their neighbors. Of course, there is no “normal”, only a perception of what it is or is not, depending on your point of view. A safe reality is a safe existence. If we refuse to embrace this fake reality, is the real world too much to accept?

Who made these rules anyway? Do we really have to forgo our dreams (even if we don’t know what they are), pull a veil over ourselves and deny an unknown future which lies ahead of us? It is safe to settle in to an aura of comfortableness, turn off the reckless noise in our ears with the façade that reality has forced our lives into mediocrity. Like Frank and April, Generation X is not accepting the system they grew up loathing and ridiculing.

Sam Mendes leaves Frank and April’s young children out of their conflict and almost out of “Revolutionary Road”. The few scenes with the children are happy ones. It is important to portray that they love their children but not the lifestyle they fell they must lead. As a father, I find it hard to be the uber-parent who throws their child a Chuck E Cheese birthday party. I don’t see myself bringing a crock-pot of hotdish to the next potluck. Doritos and cheese dip, maybe, or some derivative like Sun Chips and ranch dip. I just can’t succumb to the idea that I need to make food to impress people. I’m not making punch. It’s 2-liters of Mountain Dew, plastic cups and a bag of ice. What’s so wrong with that? I’d rather be in a mosh pit at First Avenue than spend five hours at a fundraiser. Please note all fundraising persons: I’m never buying candles. EVER. Candles burn down houses. “Nuff said. I know I’m not alone with these sentiments. Generation X does not hate parenting, just the stereotypes and stigmas associated with it. We love our kids, but we’re not shopping for them en masse at “Baby Gap.” We’re just as likely to buy them Misfits onesies and little Chuck Taylor’s. It may not be the anti-conformity envisioned by Kurdt Cobain, but a little rebellion goes a long way in your thirties. Unlike Cobain, we’re still here, still complaining about music, still in the middle of the mosh pit and still looking for that extra-cool find at the garage sale.

It doesn’t matter how you live your life or how anyone expects you to live it, by all means – love it. There are many Frank and April Wheelers out there, maybe even next door. Maybe you can see the struggle in their eyes and disposition. Maybe you can see them in the mirror. If you do, put your kids in the mirror instead. If you do nothing else in life, make sure your children are happy. Many of those Chuck E Cheese, Baby Gap parents truly love the life they lead and I admire them for it. Whether you’re happiest bringing your family to the mall or the flea market, remember you only live once. Stick around and enjoy the cheese dip.

Friday, January 9, 2009

How To Spend Your Involuntary Vacation

As anyone who isn’t living in a pineapple under the sea knows, the economy stinks and it’s going to get worse before it gets better (or so I’ve been told). More “layoffs” are announced every day but rarely is anyone told they are “fired”. I wasn’t informed the word was deleted from our lexicon. What’s next? Is “laid off” going to become an “involuntary vacation?” Whatever term is used, there’s been enough people sent home this year to occupy a small country. If this applies to you or anyone you know or care about, you have my sympathies. It’s is hard enough to lose income relied on to pay bills and support families, but it can be downright maddening to sit at home after spending so many hours away from it. I mentioned last time that I hoped everyone in this circumstance uses this time to its fullest and spends more time with their family. Time with the ‘fam can be a two-way street, however, as many experiencing an involuntary vacation have found out. People who have worked their adult lives now have quite a lot of time on their hands and may have difficulty finding things to occupy this period of employment exile. After consulting with my trusted economic advisor, Mr. Whoopee (the man with all the answers), I’ve provided below several suggestions to fill the void and hopefully keep your sanity intact.

Go fishing. Possibly one of the oldest hobbies in existence, fishing provides many benefits. You can feed yourself and your family, if you wish, although this involves gutting, slicing and dicing real, sometimes still-alive, fish. For those who think they can’t stomach this step, you can always throw the fish back into the water, hoping the metal hook you removed did not damage their entrails (bad for the environment – and for the fish). Blood and guts notwithstanding, sitting in a boat or on a dock for hours on end provides a Zen-like feeling. Those of us living in the northern part of the country have the added experience of ice fishing. For approximately two months, people can haul a small, rectangular cubicle onto their favorite lake and fish. It’s not clear how much fishing is done, but I’m pretty sure those who ice fish have a good time doing it. Ice fishing also provides experience living in a small box, which may have to be utilized permanently if things don’t change.

Become someone else. The late Timothy Leary once said, “You can be anyone, this time around.” Too bad Tim didn’t live to see the full impact of the internet. Websites and programs such as “Second Life”, “The Sims” and “Worlds of Warcraft” can provide escapes into realities Dr. Leary only dreamed of. You can reinvent yourself entirely in alternate versions of the real world in “Second Life” or “The Sims”. A fry cook can become a model, a model can become a businessman and a businessman be a janitor. The choice is yours. Date, have a family or just putz around. You can do anything you want with your fake identity, just don’t let it collide with reality. There’s enough dimensional instability already. “Worlds of Warcraft” provides a more intense online experience, letting users become powerful warriors and magicians embarking on quests and battles. Intensely engaging and possibly life-threatening, “WOW” provides endless hours of entertainment if you can afford high speed internet. However, it should be noted that many people use these programs, people you wouldn’t expect to find online but are hiding their true identity. Bernard Madoff is online, true believers, and he’s out to steal your fake assets! Look out, Ozzy! Bernie’s coming for you!

Kill your friends and complete strangers on the internet. First-person shooters have become the new national past time. Games such as “Halo” and “Gears of War” have millions of users, what could possibly be wrong with that? Run around with gigantic guns and bazookas and blow the heads off your opponents. Verbally taunt them! I hear it’s pretty therapeutic and fun for the whole family.

Catch up on TV shows. The advent of DVD box sets and online streaming makes viewing your favorite shows in chunks a snap. Up for a “Facts of Life” marathon? I am.

Play board games. This used to be a big teenage time-waster until Mario threw a fireball at Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley. Ironically, many of the classic board games have not fared well in computer transitions. “Clue” and “Yahtzee”, are best played in their original forms, without digital enhancement. Buy the “The Mad Magazine Game” on EBay. It’s cheap! If you lose, you win! It’s the best board game ever. Sink someone’s “Battleship”. Play the game of “Life.” Build a “Mousetrap”. Take over the world in “Risk.” Mess with your opponents mind in “Chess”. Outwit an army in “Stratego.” Screw your neighbors by taking their property and forcing them into bankruptcy in “Monopoly.” On second thought, it’s probably best to avoid playing “Monopoly.”

Learn a new skill. There’s no better way to spend free time than to find new ways to make yourself employable. Harness an activity that can get you noticed amid piles of job applications. The ability to “Yo-Yo” is vastly underrated and could provide an inside edge to that new job. Duncan Yo-Yo’s are as low as $2.99. A little practice and you might become an indispensable cog in the company. After all, who wants to fire the “Yo-Yo” guy?

Practice a musical instrument. Too many people are playing fake instruments on “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band.” Get a real instrument and practice, another great way to impress potential employers but also your friends. Pick an instrument like the Moog. There’s not enough Moog musicians out there. Become a proficient plucker at the tooth harp or maybe start your own jug band.

Apply for a job with Barack Obama or the FBI. Think you’re not qualified? Don’t be so sure. The advent of 24-hour news and Web 2.0 has shown over 90 percent of all government employees are mindless twatburgers. Go for it! Maybe you could be the person restraining William Shatner on the plane or scoring Obama his pack of smokes.

Be like most people, follow brain-sucking reality shows, watch 24-hour political analysis describing exactly how screwed we are and babble incessantly on the web. Wait..I’ll be back in a second. Got a message on Facebook…

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ron's Story

This piece is dedicated to Studs Terkel.

I first met Ron a few years ago at my convenience store gig. He worked the night shift at the cabinet factory across the street and would stop in with his carpooling buddies to buy coffee, smokes and lottery tickets. Every day, Ron would stop in for this afternoon ritual, always buying “Minnesota Hold-Em” scratch offs. I didn’t know if he ever won more than he lost but he seemed to enjoy the game. Ron is a small, skinny fellow, about five feet tall and alternates between a scruffy gray beard and clean-shaven. That’s all I really knew about Ron, despite having served him at the store for almost two years. I didn’t think much of it as I assumed we would have little in common anyway. I just sold him a large cup of coffee, a pack of Pall Malls and scratch offs. I don’t think Ron ever bought anything other than those three items which he bought every day, five days a week. He must really like stability.

One Sunday afternoon, I took my family to eat at a Chinese restaurant in Monticello, which has the distinction of being the only place in Wright County where you can order fresh sushi (yes, I know sushi is Japanese food – my last name’s Koeppe, not Palin). As I was gathering a plateful of salmon and tuna wrapped in a sesame seed rice patty with a big side of wasabi, I bumped into Ron. He greeted me with the “hey” of an old friend and pointed to the table where my family was seated. “That your family? You’ve got a nice family there.” Ron motioned to a table two down from ours where a young man was seated. “That’s my boy – he’s a BIG boy,” he laughed. Ron’s son was definitely bigger than he was, about three times as big. I could tell how proud he was of his son. After I finished my sushi-fest and the kids were getting antsy as toddlers tend to, we put on our coats and began to leave, I walked over to Ron’s table.
“Nice to see ya,” I said.
“You, too. Take care,” smiled Ron.
“See you in a couple days.”

Ron and I talked quite a bit after that encounter. He’d come into the store, fill up his 20-ounce coffee and give me grief regarding its freshness. He always made a point to ask me how my family was and tell me what a nice family I had. I started to get more engaged in his lotto picks and guessed he usually won a little more than he lost. We’d have two minute conversations about life’s boredoms and annoyances. One afternoon, I confessed to being a little tired (probably from writing or the kids) and Ron laughed.
“How much sleep do you get?”
“I try to get six hours,” I replied.
“I get home about one o’clock, sleep at two and I’m up again at five.”
“So I can see my boy.”
Ron explained that his work hours prevented him from seeing his son most of the week. He would leave for the night shift before his son would be home from school and his son would be sleeping when he returned from work. Like many individuals, Ron found it hard to fall back asleep after waking up. He survived on three hours of sleep, five days a week, so he could see his son every day. It’s little wonder he would complain about the freshness of coffee given how much of it he probably consumed. Ron’s sacrifice of sleep is one many parents give when they can’t see their kids. The thought of missing them grow up is far worse than missing sleep.

Ron’s story made me think of my mom, who for many years, worked either the midnight or graveyard shift at her factory job. I guess I took for granted that she would be there to wake me up in the morning, give me a good breakfast and ask me how life was going. Mom probably didn’t fall back asleep after I went to school. Our house was always spotless, laundry washed and beds made. Many times, she would make supper for my Dad and me before she left for work, putting the meal in the refrigerator in separate Tupperware containers for the both of us. As a kid, it never occurred to me the time and effort entailed on a daily basis to make her family happy.

The 2008 recession hit the construction industry particularly hard. The cabinet factory was forced to lay off the majority of the night shift, giving the employees about a days notice that their services were no longer needed. It was difficult to come to work for my first day after the carnage. I kept thinking about Ron and his carpooling buddies, wondering if they made the cut. I started to watch the clock, ticking closer to 3PM, a half hour before the night shift starts. Nobody. 3:10, still no-one through the door. About 3:20, I knew Ron had been laid off. It was a sad, lonely half hour, one experienced by too many this past year. I started to realize how much I would miss Ron, a person I didn’t know or care much about until he chose to care about me.

Maybe it’s time we take a closer look at all the people who surround our lives every day and get to know them. Even if you don’t have anything in common with them, their hearts might surprise you. Make a connection with them – keep it if you can. Ron may not be a plumber, “Joe Six-Pack” or a convenient sound bite, but he is real to me and an epitome of why we should create connections with each other every chance we get.

I hope Ron uses this unfortunate situation to hang out with his son that he loves and not dwell on his lack of employment. There’s no point in being mad about a lost job. What’s the use in being angry about something if you can’t change the outcome? Even though change is hard to stomach, losing a job is miniscule to losing family or friends. There’s no point getting wrapped up in situations out of your control. If the media is too much of a downer, ignore it, watch “Sponge Bob” and laugh at the realization Patrick Starfish would have done better supervising Wall Street.

My Mom was laid off several times when I was young. Even if we didn’t have a lot of money, it was great to spend time with her. Possessions are replaceable, time is not. Hopefully, many people who are starting the year unemployed will use this time to do things they always wanted to do. Be it sleep, fish, cook a good meal for your family or catch up on TV, do something that makes you happy. I’d like to think Ron is using his time enjoying his family, making the occasional trip to the local store for cigarettes and “Minnesota Hold-‘Em”, winning a little more than he loses, which is all any of us can hope for when the chips are down.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

An Old, Fresh Piece of Humanity - Why "The Twilight Zone" Still Matters

The arrival of a new year is usually met with revelry and spectacle, even with times being a little more uncertain than they usually are. 2009 is met with relief and anticipation, due to the basic fact that the date is no longer 2008. For the past five years or so, I’ve spent a chunk of the holiday at home in front of the TV, ringing in the New Year with an old friend, Rod Serling. 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of “The Twilight Zone”, yet is has held up far better than contemporary shows of its time. Can anyone honestly say they could sit through a two-day marathon of the number one rated show of the 60’s, “The Beverly Hillbillies?” If you answered “yes”, there is a padded cell on your left. Please enter, lock the door and say hello to Jethro Bodine for me.

The annual “Twilight Zone” marathon on the Sci-Fi channel is somewhat of an anti-New Year party, as the majority of episodes rarely end with an optimistic tone. The show’s creator and host, Rod Serlng, tended to show the human race as fallible, distrustful of each other and innately paranoid. Serling, who was also “Twilight Zone’s” most prolific writer, created worlds where people and things are never what they seem. In the episode, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” viewers are given the task of identifying the disguised alien from a set of stereotypes: the newlyweds, the big businessman, the crazy bum and a shopkeeper. The denouement adds an extra twist. There is not one alien, but two. I won’t spoil the episode by identifying the aliens. Serling used stereotypes often but always with irony. A beautiful woman who wants to be ugly, cute children who are never truly innocent and authority figures that tend to be clueless seem like fairly common ideas now, but in the early 60’s they weren’t.

Serling often addressed the Cold War and nuclear paranoia, using it not to condemn our enemies but to show the flaws in all of us. The classic episode “To Serve Man” possesses a far deeper irony than humans being harvested for stew. During the episode, the U.N. is dissolved as the aliens have brought peace and prosperity to the whole planet. Serling’s main point was showing that we could distrust and hate our enemies (at that time, the Russians) but readily accept an alien utopia without question. Several episodes, most notably “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter”, were morality plays used to show how little faith we have in our own friends and neighbors when a crisis unfolds. The “monsters” in “Maple Street” are revealed to be ourselves, ripe for an alien invasion when they cannot unite when the city loses power. Similarly, “The Shelter” shows a family locked in their fallout shelter, refusing to let their friends in while the friends on the outside turn on each other and attempt to break in. Once the “all clear” is given, the cast walks away from each other in slow silence. Unlike other pieces of Cold War literature, these episodes are not dated. Serling knew focusing on the human element in the stories was more relevant than the setting itself. If a crisis arose today, would we unite or would we act only out of self-preservation?

“Twilight Zone” was also a showcase for suspense and horror. The episodes “Living Doll” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” are downright terrifying. For a second, I thought about tuning in with the family for the airing of “Living Doll” but quickly realized this was a bad idea. Talking dolls are freaky and I didn’t want to deal with my kids falling asleep in terror from their toys. With all the animated, talking toys available today, it’s easy to become unnerved by their ability to know your child’s name and dance when they’re tickled. I challenge anyone to walk through the toy aisles at any store and not get just a little freaked out. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” addresses the fear of airplanes. The image of William Shatner staring in shock at the monster destroying the plane is on par with anything created by horror masters Wes Craven and John Carpenter. “Twilight Zone” tapped into our inner fears, the eternal nightmares that occur in our minds and have resided in our collective conscious for centuries. Everyone is scared of something. “Twilight Zone” had a knack for finding those fears, no matter how buried they may be.

The “Twilight Zone” seems more relevant now than when it first aired. Technology was supposed to connect us but has pushed many apart. The advent of a new year and a new era for our country has been met with an almost naïve optimism. Are things really going to change or are we just participating in a collective illusion designed to convince us that we are in a garden with blooming roses when we are actually standing in a sewer? Is your financial advisor really looking out for you or are they busy planning an escape to the Cayman Islands? Will you be having cocktails with your co-workers on Monday, only to be forced to fire them on Tuesday? Will you lend money to friends that are losing their homes or will stand by with your eyes staring blankly at a window? Will you condemn those convicted of government corruption even as you know “pay to play” is the name of the game? Are you a good teacher? Are you relevant or are you merely a marionette dancing on a stage to the whims of children? Are you in love or are you just a chapter in another person’s story? Do you open Pandora’s box? Do you seek the unknown out of excitement, fear or both?

These answers can be found not only in our future but also in our lives, souls and minds, which seems to be forever intertwined with “The Twilight Zone.”