Saturday, February 28, 2009

You Say You Want a Revolution?

“It ain't that big. The whole United States ain't that big. It ain't that big. It ain't big enough. There ain't room enough for you an' me, for your kind an' my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country, for thieves and honest men. For hunger and fat.”
– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

When Barack Obama was elected president last November, he stated, “Change is coming.” Change, as many of us know, is an ambiguous term and can be interpreted countless different ways, kinda like the term “hope.” To many Americans who voted for Obama, change simply meant “not Bush.” If there is anyone out there who actually thinks few voters cast their ballot based on this rather baseless reasoning, I have a new flavor of ice cream to sell you – “dairy delusional”. In 2004, the activist group “Vote for Change” assaulted people throughout Minneapolis with the pitch “Do you want to help get George Bush out of the White House?” Although young, earnest and well-intentioned, I tended to question the volunteers depth of knowledge considering they could state little regarding the candidate they supported at the time (John Kerry) and relied on voter dissatisfaction on the current administration to achieve their goal. Fast-forward to 2008, the average citizen is disgusted with the economy, Bush cronyism and the concept of politics as usual in Washington. The media covered the election like a bizzaro reality show starring a charming, eloquent 47-year-old senator named Barack Obama. Obama was able to successfully use television and the internet to combine the concepts of “change”, “hope” and “not Bush” en route to a definitive victory. However, for the millions of Americans who voted for the “not Bush”, many of whom voted with their almost-empty pocketbooks, the change coming from the new administration is far different from the vagueness left up to their imaginations months earlier.

When President Obama unveiled his housing rescue program last week, many Americans were dismayed at the apparent concept of rewarding people who bit off more than they could financially chew. Although Obama stated his program would not help laid off yuppies stay in their McMansions, press secretary Robert Gibbs confessed the program will more than likely aid some undeserving homeowners. In what is probably President Obama’s first major policy flop, the concept of American taxpayers subsidizing their foolish neighbors in addition to paying for arrogant, money-hoarding banks and clueless auto companies is too much to fathom after giving the new president a basic pass on his stimulus package. Time for another lesson from the wonderful world of Adam Koeppe Simple Math. First, the cost of living is much more expensive in Florida, New York and California than the rest of the country. A $500,000 home in Florida could equate to a $150,000 property in Minnesota, Wisconsin or many other parts of the country. Secondly, Florida and California are two of the states hit hardest by the mortgage meltdown, so there’s a lot of rich or wanna be rich people with their hands out. Third, proportionally, it will be much more expensive to help out the well-dressed beautiful people than the majority of the country. In other words, for every one home that is bailed out in Florida or California, the government could help almost five in other states. Five to one, one to five. Are we going to get out of this mess alive?

I have nothing against palm tree huggers; I just want them to understand the rest of the country would like them to live within their means. If you can afford to live it up in Miami or Los Angeles, great. Party on. Say hi to Jeremy Piven for me. If you can’t afford your rock and roll lifestyle, load up your car and move into Jed Clampett’s old digs in hillbilly land. President Obama has indicated our decades long belief in a culture of entitlement is ending. Using this philosophy could place the new President at odds with many of the same people who voted for him. My trusted sources have informed me that Fox News, Matt Drudge and every conservative talk radio host across the country will expose each and every undeserving home owner who is bailed out and will shove it in Obama’s face alongside pictures of said mansions and their swimming pools day after day until the public is in compete disgust of those who think they are entitled to a certain standard of living, even though they do not deserve it. Octomom: THIS IS YOU.

As President Obama pushes for billions of dollars to fund long-needed health care reform, he will continually remind us it is our duty as citizens to care for our own and that no family should lose everything they own because of out of control health care costs. I could not agree more. If I didn’t have insurance, my last visit to the doctor’s office would have been $118, and that was with no tests, x-rays or other stuff. That was just to walk in the door. Americans are bombarded with heath-care horror stories from both sides, but the majority agrees the costs are out of control and the insurance industry is a joke. However, this legislation will have a negative impact on the stock market, as pretty much everything Obama has done so far has distressed the not so mighty minds of Wall Street. There are many companies dependant on the health insurance industry to function and as that dependence is eroded, so will investor confidence in said companies. I know many businesses that provide heath insurance for enticement to work for their company in a sweatshop-like atmosphere just so their family can afford doctor and dentist visits. Similar to the General Motors, these companies will be forced to alter their business model to accommodate workers who will no longer need to labor under adverse conditions to afford heath care. There are tens of thousands of companies like this and they will make their feelings heard through a stagnant stock market.

Many Americans are concerned over the fate of Wall Street and their incredibly shrinking portfolios. As much as the declining market is a result of Obama’s policies, it also reflects a complete lack of confidence in big business and the individuals who speculate on their future. The public is given a new charlatan on a weekly basis; a person who has swindled people from their earnings so they can live like kings. The latest dirtbag in a thousand-dollar suit, R. Allen Stanford, actually liked to be called “Sir”, a title used in his official biography on Stanford is accused of a nine billon dollar Ponzi scheme, which is still dwarfed by Bernie Madoff’s fifty billion dollar fraud. President Obama has not called out these individuals by name, only stating that these are actions of a few and not indicative of investors and bankers in general. The President may be correct in this generalization, but the anger surrounding these individuals continues to mount. The FBI and SEC are facing massive pressure to root out these bad guys, a process which began at the tail end of the Bush presidency. As more Stanfords are added to the list of real-life J.R. Ewings, citizens will become far less likely to invest their savings in a stock market they no longer trust.

In order for the free market to function properly, there has to be an implicit assurance of trust and honesty. This trust has been decimated by the behavior of banks, the auto industry and greedy slimeballs in general. Like any relationship, once trust is violated, it is very difficult to earn back. Many people just choose to cut their losses and move on. This means less investing of income by Americans, providing they have any income left to invest. Retrospectively, it was not really feasible for the stock market to double its value in ten years, nor should it be a complete surprise that it returns to levels predating the spike. Frank Rich pointed out the increase in bank craziness runs parallel to the departure of the last Wall Street executives who were affected by the Great Depression. After they retired, Gordon Gekko was free to swindle, lie and buy as he pleased, as long as he had a nice compensation package waiting for him after he ran his company into the ground. The guaranteed contracts of high-ranking executives have become a burden on investors. The more there are, the less likely more capital will be put into the system. If the general public no longer trusts business to take care or itself, it’s hard to invest in their future. To his credit, Barack Obama has not used his bully pulpit to incite further anger towards these institutions. Maybe he realizes Americans are ticked off enough. In his speech Tuesday night, he stated he “gets it.” If this is indeed so, we are in for a rude awakening surrounding our culture of “gimme gimme gimme.”

Our country elected a man who does not support the game as it has been played for the last few decades. He is moving the chess board in a permanent sort of way. The opposition to his policies has few leaders and no one that can match the oratorical abilities of Barack Obama. When he takes his show on the road, as he did to promote support for the stimulus, our president has no peer. The Republican Party is in sad disarray, suffering from the fallout of Bush cronyism and videotaped handshakes with the ex-president used in campaigns of years past. They have little, if any knowledge of internet communications, an allegation made by Senator John McCain’s daughter Meghan, in a relavatory piece posted on The Daily Beast. President Obama will use this advantage, along with his super-speaking power, for the foreseeable future. This may not be the change the “not-Bushes” voted for or wanted, but it is the change that has arrived, for better or worse. Our world is shifting, true believers, but it is still up to us if we choose to believe in ourselves and not politicians, pundits and posers.

Meanwhile, conservatives are huddled together enmasse at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), trying to redefine themselves as constitutionalists, fiscally responsible and generally “not Bush.” Even the esteemed, portly, pompous Rush Limbaugh stated the road ahead for the Republican Party will be tough. “Not Bush” won, not only destroying the Karl Rove ideal of a permanent Republican majority, but making it a concept as laughable as Al Gore inventing the internet. Republicans had little to fear if Hillary Clinton would have been elected, as was widely presumed a year ago. She plays the game traditionally and would have enacted business as usual in centrist Democratic policymaking. However, Clinton did not win the nomination and Barack Obama won the presidency. He has such a head start on fundraising, monetarily and technologically, Republicans do not only resemble a tortoise, they resemble a tortoise with its head three feet up its backside. Until they realize they have to move beyond lobbying their message to radio and broadcast T.V., they risk further marginalizing themselves while President Obama has his way with his party majorities in congress, which if I may remind some forgetful readers, exist because the Republican Party marched lock and step with George…who? As I watch the CPAC convention, no-one seems to know this guy. George…Foreman? Jetson? Phyllis George? Ask anyone at CPAC, the last Republican president was Reagan, not “whatsisname.”

As the CPAC crew does the time warp, the rest of the country is left with the fallout of electing a man who wants to change the economic landscape dramatically. If “not Bush” is what many voters wanted, they have received it to the 10th power. If the political landscape shifts toward an era of big government and helping the infinitely stupid, the incompetence of the administration of George W. Bush played just as large a part in its ascendance as the speaking abilities of a first-term U.S. Senator. Many of us do not like some (if any) proposals in Barack Obama’s agenda, but he is in charge for the next few years and won by a decisive majority. We’re going to have to live with his decisions and hope for the best, as we did when some other guy babbled about imaginary WMD’s. President Obama has political capital and he is going to use it. His promise of change is here, but it may not be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for some of us. Nobody said change was going to be easy or even slightly bumpy. Fasten your seatbelts, kiddos. We’re in for a completely off-road experience.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

And the Winner Is...

By the time I’ve finished posting this, “Slumdog Millionaire” will more than likely have been named Best Picture at the 2009 Oscars. It’s easy to see why the film has been given such accolades thus far. It possesses a tight, well-structured screenplay and is masterfully directed by Danny Boyle. “Slumdog” is paced well, keeps the audience involved with the three main characters and provides an emotional, if slightly predictable climax. I guess you’ve noticed my words aren’t drooling with admiration. I loved “Slumdog” but I have a tough time placing it above films such as “WALL-E” and “Gran Torino” as the best picture of the year. The fact that the latter two films were not even nominated for the category calls into question the politics of the academy and award shows in general.

“Slumdog Millionaire” represents the culmination of many themes represented in Danny Boyle’s work, beginning with 1994’s “Shallow Grave” and continued with the cult favorite “Trainspotting”, the apocalyptic horror film “28 Days Later” and 2004’s “Millions”, Boyle’s first foray into more mainstream filmmaking. Many characters in these films live on the edges of society and choose crime as a way of life as their existence has provided no other plausible outlet for success. In “Slumdog” Jamal and his brother Salim spend most of their youth as thieves and con artists, yet we never call into question their motives, as they were penniless orphans with no other logical means of surviving. Boyle covered similar ground in 1996’s “Trainspotting”, his images of welfare-stricken England slightly similar in tone to that of Mumbai. We tend not to criticize the questionable acts of Renton during the movie, as we believe he is doing what he can to make a living, even if it is stealing and selling drugs.

It is understood that the crappiest parts of England are preferable to the slums of Mumbai, India. However, Boyle has progressively been using impoverished archetypes to show how nice, likable people do things they shouldn’t due to destiny or fate. Coincidentally, Boyle uses a clip from “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” in “Millions”, where a young boy finds a sack of money that he believes fell from the sky. “Millions” is lighter in tone than “Slumdog Millionaire” but begins many themes that Boyle perfects in the latter film. In “Slumdog”, the sacrifices endured by several key characters are far greater than those in any of Boyle’s previous works, making their redemption more powerful and fully realized than in any of his other films.

Like Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”, “Slumdog Millionaire” is the ultimate Danny Boyle movie. In addition to the script and themes, Boyle synthesizes his quick-flash action cinematography used in “28 Days Later”, the psychedelic imagery shown in “Trainspotting” and 2000’s “The Beach”. “Slumdog” is a work of a master craftsman at his peak, who may possibly have over two decades of filmmaking left in his tank. Boyle, 53, is far younger than Scorsese and Eastwood when they received this honor. Maybe this is the academy’s method of rectifying previous errors like the snubbing of Scorsese and Eastwood much of their careers. “The Departed” is a great film, but most film buffs prefer “Goodfellas” as the ultimate Scorsese gangster flick. “Unforgiven” may have given Clint his first statue, but “The Outlaw Josey Wales” is in many eyes, a far superior Western. With a lack of new blood in the Hollywood star system, it is possible many voters want to make a new celebrity any which way they can, be they actors or directors. Peter Jackson’s Oscar for 2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” gave him superstar-director status and the right to pick any project he chooses, no matter how astronomical the budget. It remains to be seen how Boyle will handle his celebrity status if “Slumdog” takes “Best Director” and “Best Picture”. I hope he eventually makes his sequel to “Trainspotting”, which has hinted at from time to time. Who doesn’t want to see how “Spud” and “SickBoy” handle middle-age?

The two films I mentioned as Best Picture snubs, “WALL-E” and “Gran Torino”, may have been passed on for political reasons. “WALL-E”, by far the best reviewed film of 2008, is not only animated, but forgoes the “star-system” of voiceovers (unless you count John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy and an almost unrecognizable Sigourney Weaver). “Wall-E” made millions for Disney/Pixar but did not feed the Hollywood system, which loves to pat itself on the back. It’s understood that “Slumdog Millionaire” doesn’t either, but the end goal may be making a star out of the director who may then “feed the system” for the next twenty years or so. It may also be the academy is doing to Pixar what they did to Scorsese, Eastwood and many others: have them wait decades until they get the award as an almost-thank you as opposed to earning it for a truly deserving film.

While “WALL-E” is an almost shoo-in for Best Animated Feature, Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” was snubbed entirely, mostly for political reasons. Seen by many as Eastwood’s return to the “Dirty Harry” mentality, “Torino” epitomizes the type of film many of the Hollywood elite do not want to reward. The Film Comment review of “Gran Torino” trashed the acting of the young, mostly Hmong performers in the film. Ironically, no such criticism was leveled at any of the cast of “Slumdog” as they were mostly film veterans while Eastwood chose to use mostly amateurs. However, the performances of the characters in “Slumdog” could be seen as almost too polished whereas the inexperience of the young actors in “Torino” emphasizes the shyness of outsiders trying to fit in. If “Slumdog Millionaire” is Oscar’s darling, “Gran Torino” is surely its pariah. It is a pity the academy chose not to recognize Eastwood, whose film is a culmination of many of his themes regarding justice, pain and redemption. These same themes, interestingly, are dealt with by Danny Boyle in “Slumdog Millionaire” but in a much more politically correct fashion. Hey, who said Hollywood wasn’t hypocritical?

When the Oscars are finished, it will not really matter which 2008 films win or lose, but which ones will go on to engrain themselves into the public movie consciousness. I watched a goodly chunk of TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar” and am always surprised at how few films I recognize. An award does not always guarantee immortality or a wide audience, just a line in a history book. Sometimes the sentimentality of the present overwhelms the concept of posterity for the future. If we look at the nominees from 25 years ago, only “The Big Chill” stands out as a film still watched by contemporary audiences. Conversely, the two best-known films from 1983, “Return of the Jedi” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” are aired regularly and are part of the average movie-lover’s collection. Time is the ultimate judge of a film’s durability and influence, not the political motivations of an elite few. If we use this standard, the 2009 award for “Film Most Likely to be Remembered” is: “WALL-E” with “The Dark Knight” in second place. Time as always, will determine the films remembered, the ones forgotten and the ones doomed to air at 2AM on bad TV stations (thank you, Razzies!).

Thursday, February 19, 2009


My grandparents’ house is a fascinating place. Seemingly out of time, almost everything in it is 25 years old or older, except for a cable box purchased in anticipation of the end of analog broadcasts. The refrigerator, stove, bedrooms and dining room remain similar as I have always remembered. An era where radios were furniture with lamps and magazines on an oak top preserved like an interactive protest against time itself. The record player is over thirty years old yet still contains the original receipt and warranty inside. My grandfather passed away eleven years ago and much of the house has stopped since his passing. Storage boxes surround the foot of his bed, stacked in haphazard fashion, but his ashtray is beside the bed next to the same brown rectangular clock, which has kept time for decades. Occasionally, I take a nap or sleep in the bed and I always feel his smell and aura around me.

Recently, I brought my two little ones to visit Great Grandma. Although the house is too small for their enthusiasm, they seem to enjoy it tremendously. There are always cookies in the kitchen, chips in the living room and ice cream in the freezer. Upon arriving, my son, Shane was intent on breaking into the door leading to the attic steps, an endeavor attempted many times by yours truly when I was his age. The door is a pathway to the past, a means to access the unknown somethings which connect us through time. Shane pulled away the boxes blocking the door, intent on finding a box of toys I’d found a year earlier. The box contained toys from my childhood, things I probably played with while the rest of the world was jiving to the Bee Gees.

Shane dived in and pulled out a Fisher Price toy T.V. It played scrolling pictures to “London Bridges” and “Row Your Boat.” Winding the tuning knob caused the pictures to move and the music to play. He was fascinated by this primitive music box, wondering how the knob he turned could cause the music to play. While he played with it, I realized I knew basically how the toy worked. Spring, rubber band and torque? I wasn’t sure if I was right but at least I had an explanation. I have no idea how “Tickle Me Elmo” works and part of me never wants to. My toys from thirty years ago captivated him as he went back to the attic steps for another. He pulled out a Tonka Toys tractor with a working loader and bucket. Shane asked how it worked and my Dad and I demonstrated the levers which lifted the loader and emptied the bucket. He was happy with the answer, which is better than I could hope to describe how the DVD player operates. His excavation continued from the box and around the house, resulting in wood nesting puzzles, a hand-made cloth book and a magnifying glass. Eventually, he came across a metal bar with two wheels in the front and back.
“What’s that, Daddy?”
“It’s a car.”
“No it’s not,” said Dad. “That’s a pulley for a barn door.”
“Granddad always said it was a car.”

A pulley pulls the curtain open to a ballet of memories. A music box is the key to the universe twirling in the mind. Bouncing on the bed, ring around the rosie, hiding under covers afraid of monsters – and the monsters attack! A doll that opens its eyes if you love it that much. An imagination filled with a hug, a kiss and nursery rhymes.

A baby grandfather clock sits on the fireplace mantle. It hasn’t chimed in years but I hear its echo now. Grandma had let it go quiet, the quarter hour signal silenced. White ceiling paint peels above it, an implicit signal of the breaking of the past, a desire not to fix, but leave behind. She will be ninety-one this year and longs for a world that was probably just as corrupt, but a little easier to believe in. Connected to my Grandfather in an eternal, ethereal bond, which one has with a true love, a feeling that flows through time and space, past and future. The instinct which bonds us with one other, the one we’re supposed to spend time with. A decade is a long time to wait for a connection, a signal that the little something called love lasts forever.

The echo of the clock became a noise. Grandma found a new energy as my little two year old, Romana, pulled her from room to room, bouncing on the beds with gleeful abandon. Shane is grabbing cookies, taking marshmallows from the stovetop and somersaulting on the carpet. The stagnant clock rewinds, cracks in the ceiling are sealed as the house becomes filled with smiles and laughter. I could smell my grandfather’s pipe in the air. What was old is eternally new, present and alive. I laid back in his chair, taking in the timeslip as I had many times since his passing. Transcending time is like watching a waterfall. It flows with metronome momentum, occurring continually throughout the conscious. These are the places we’re meant to be at because we’ve always been there, the places that are pure as the first breath we take.

It is still close to impossible for me to picture Grandma at ninety-one. To me, she is still the person I could see gazing out of the kitchen window, washing dishes, watching me play in the sandbox or mow the lawn with Grandpa. The person who gave me a bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate on top and played Rummy and Pinochle with me for hours was the same person that Saturday. Time may be cruel but it also can be kind, providing mirror-flashes of faces un-aged and bodies still vibrant. We are only as old as the images of ourselves reflected in our subconscious. I smelled the pipe tobacco of Grandpa. Maybe it’s real, maybe it’s not but I relished it just the same. I think Grandma felt it too, that day. I’ve had this feeling before, a sense of a distant world gone by seeping into the present, almost always at the farm but there are other waterfalls flowing into the river of reality but the only one I can verify is the farm I grew up on. There are places and moments that put you out of time, into a spectrum wider than existence itself. These instincts could be chalked up to déjà vu, divine intervention or delusions of grandeur. I cannot claim to know, only that I suspect many of us have these experiences as well. It’s our choice if we accept them or bury them inside.

As I left the farmhouse, I looked across the lake and inhaled the crisp air. It felt old, new yet changing and evolving. Simultaneously, I felt like I was in 1959, 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009 and all the years in-between. The universe is intertwined in ways so intricate we can barely comprehend them in our wildest fantasies. I can take my Fisher Price T.V., rewind the boat and float gently down the stream. My Grandma experiences this every day when she thinks about her life spent with Grandpa, the family and friends who are passed on, yet through the power of memory they continue to breathe. Like artifacts in a museum on display, memories are an idolization of the past, a pretense of the present and a portent of the future. Although she is often alone, I hope Grandma is in good company with her past, greeting each new day with a desire that the present isn’t so dire and the future gives her a hug when they say goodbye. As she falls asleep in her rocking chair, Granddad is still there smoking his pipe and making sure she is all right. It is the comfort of a life well led and loved which overcomes the void, the feeling that you’re never really alone as long as someone loves you throughout eternity.

Friday, February 13, 2009

What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Valentine's Day?

“If you were a pill, I’d take a handful at my will
And I’d knock you back with something sweet and strong”
– Paul Westerberg (The Replacements) “Valentine”

Valentine’s Day is probably the only dualistic holiday where our society permits us to love it or loathe it. There are hundreds of lists counting the top love songs and just as many lists of anti-love longs. We can go out to dinner and a movie with that special someone or stay at home and watch slasher movies instead. Valentine’s Day is the only holiday you can protest without criticism. As much fun as preempting Thanksgiving Afternoon Bowl games for a Jason Voorhees slaughterthon might be, this may cause a slight protest from the rest of the guests. Christmas also requires a certain stereotypical behavior: go to relative’s house, eat, be nice to some people you don’t like, eat more, open up gifts, go home and pass out. Little variation is permitted these aforementioned holidays. Valentine’s Day you can pretty much do what you darn well please.

Earlier this week, I was discussing with an esteemed colleague about bring the old “inner Linus” out of retirement to combat the commercial forces driving many of us on Valentine’s Day. Although a romantic at heart, my friend despises the concept that we are supposed to spend a day’s wages to prove to our significant other we care about them. Dozen roses: check. Decent bottle of wine (no Boone’s Farm!): check. Box of chocolates with multi-colored mystery fillings: check. Overpriced dinner at a restaurant where the special is more than likely something you can cook yourself: check. Obligatory Hallmark card: check. Expensive gift given because you will be in the doghouse if you don’t buy one: check. Checkbook with no money to write checks: check. It’s easy to see why anyone’s “inner Linus” is clinging to their security blanket for protection. Valentine’s Day can definitely have a smackdown with Halloween as our most commercial holiday.

I decided to leave the “inner Linus” alone after seeing a handful of people going home today with Valentine’s cards and flowers. I realized many people use Valentine’s Day as one of the few occasions to express overt affection for their loved ones. It was heartwarming in a Capra-esque way to see an older gentleman waiting in line to purchase a card. Many relationships don’t last a year, let alone a decade or five. Although somewhat ritualistic, those who give a Valentine gift someone after being with them for so long is a celebration of affection, commitment, and one that is sadly diminishing. It’s great imagining a box in this older couple’s house containing all the Valentine’s cards they’ve given over the years, which is a great reminder to their children and grandchildren of a couple’s eternal love for each other.

A few years ago, I was going through a box of my Grandma’s pictures. I’d pull one out and she would conjure a memory vivid enough to have happened yesterday. I eventually came across a letter my late grandfather wrote to her before they were married. Written during the Great Depression when jobs were scarce, he had moved away from her in hopes of earning enough money to come back, marry her and start a family. Needless to say, he did. I’d like to think this type of devotion exists within many of us today. A willingness to sacrifice short-term fulfillment to build the foundation for a lifetime of memories. The concept of buying a manufactured home in a cookie-cutter development with a quaint front yard and children playing in the street may seem a little silly to us, but for a generation that lost nearly everything, it represented hope of a better life. If flowers, a card or a steak dinner helps anyone remember what’s really important in life, by all means, do it.

That said, if you are stressing yourself worrying about Valentine’s Day, hoping the florist will still have fresh roses at noon, the restaurant won’t be too crowded or if your new dress won’t impress, take a step back. This ain’t what love is about at all, Carrie Bradshaw. It’s about enjoying the moment when you realize a feeling is more than emotion but rather an infection. It’s about looking each other in the eye of a new morning and just saying “hi.” It’s about silence that is intimate, rather than uncomfortable. It’s about listening, understanding and cuddling. If you’re fretting about going out, stay home. Send the kids to Grandma’s house. Get to know each other better. Instead of dancing to a band, enjoy the movement of your eyes when they gaze into your lover. Make some popcorn, have a food fight and remind yourselves that you’re still two goofy kids on a first date.

Like Christmas, Valentine’s Day can also be a day of sadness, a reminder of those we’ve lost or wish to be closer to our hearts. It’s hard to be alone or feeling lost when so many are celebrating the enigmatic concept of love. This is probably why slasher flicks are so popular this time of year. I’d like to think most of us aren’t out in the woods, waiting for a rescue that will never come, but sitting in the still place inside ourselves where the candle never burns out. For all those wishing to be closer to someone somewhere, please find happiness in the dreams and fantasies that sometimes do become reality if your faith is strong and belief is true. Sometimes love is closer than you think. Be it dharma or karma, the world has a way of working things out. Love is indeed a many splendored thing. It is the tender trap and also a bitch. It is also what keeps us going and keeps us believing that there is someone out there beneath the shining stars that feels the same as you do. Make a wish and keep your light burning. Sometimes reality is just a dream away. May it come true, as each and every one of us have a place and a time. A time to dance with the stars and sleep with angels, for tomorrow is making Valentines.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Stimulate This!

I don’t know about you, but I am so completely sick and tired of hearing about the Democratic Economic Stimulus Package, the pros and cons of its passage and the eight million Freudian implications of the word stimulus. Those who support its passage really can’t explain their reasoning (something about jobs) and those who yearn for its defeat can’t explain their reasoning either (something about pork). Confused? Annoyed? Feel the urge to contact your local congressman or senator and ask them if they’ve scored some killer dope from Michael Phelps? Do not bother, true believers. According to my inside sources, 99 percent of Congress has already decided how they are going to vote on the bill, regardless of the feelings of the constituents they supposedly represent. This type of political posturing is guaranteed to do absolutely nothing except stimulate further feelings of disgust and apathy from the citizens they have pledged to help.

It is widely agreed that the United States’ infrastructure is in disrepair and needs to get fixed, sooner than later. It’s also widely agreed we need to develop alternative energy sources so we can get the living hell out of the Middle East and never look back. Many schools do need to be brought into the 21st Century so our children can compete with Western Europe, Russia, Japan and all the other nations that are passing us by in education standards. Most people also agree that giving 246 million dollars to Hollywood producers is nothing but evidence that “pay to play” is the name of the game. Ugh. How did that provision got in the stimulus bill remains a mystery but I’ve got a darn good idea who put it there. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is possibly the most pompous, egotistical politician I have seen in my life. Pelosi was quoted talking about this massive spending bill before Barack Obama was even elected. It’s little shock she would give a kickback to those who helped bring in thousands of fundraising dollars. Evidence of Pelosi’s special favors date back to her election as Speaker, Pelosi lobbied to have U.S. territory American Samoa exempted from the federal minimum wage increase. Coincidentally, one of American Samoa’s largest employers is Star Kist Tuna whose parent company, Del Monte, is based in Pelosi’s home district. My inner Fox Mulder suspects nearly all questionable provisions in the stimulus bill were authored or encouraged by Speaker Pelosi, considering she started writing it months before it was unveiled.

Conversely, Republican ideas surrounding the stimulus bill have revolved around tax cuts. I like extra cash as much as the next person but I highly doubt extra cash in my pocket is really going to bring back millions of jobs. Americans are changing the means they spend radically, from retail stores to the internet, from new cars to old beaters. Tax cuts are not going to encourage people to go to Abercrombie and Fitch. They are not going to convince anyone they should buy SUV’s from two potentially bankrupt auto companies. Tax cuts sound good because people like money. However, I find it difficult to accept these proposals from a party that marched lock, stop and barrel with a president who spent us into oblivion. Over the long term, tax cuts result in underfunded schools and roads that look like obstacle courses. Federal tax cuts trickle down in a very nasty way. If the U.S. government spends less, there is less money for states, counties and towns, who are then forced to raise property taxes to make up for the shortfall. The main difference is that counties and cities do not rely on public opinion nearly as much as state and federal government. Counties and cities can raise your taxes without public voting to pay for necessary (and unnecessary) services. The only exception is public schools, where tax increases are required to be voted upon. In difficult economic times, proposals to limit class sizes, hire more teachers and provide a better learning environment for our children tend to be shot down, as this voting procedure is sadly the only voice citizens get over how their money is spent. I learned all of this in “Reaganomics 101.” Took it for eight years. Got an “A.”

So who’s to blame for this boondoggle we’re in? We’re America, dammit! There has to be a bad guy somewhere. After discussing the causes of the economic crisis with one of my trusted advisors, the Stallion, I have determined the main perpetrator that instigated our current almost-maybe-just quite might be-next depression: Starbucks. Before you drop your vanilla latte in shock and awe, let me elaborate. For the last decade, Starbucks attempted to monopolize the coffee industry by constructing stores on every city block and in every shopping mall hoping to corner the coffee market by annihilating all competition. They did this with such zeal that sometimes you could see two of three Starbucks stores in the same mall and two on the same city block. This business strategy doesn’t make sense. My Adam Koeppe Simple Math shows that if a business chooses to compete against itself, the end result is subtraction rather than addition. Customer traffic will decrease, rather than increase, for a variety of reasons. There are only so many coffee drinkers and even less who choose to throw down a five-spot to get their fix. One busy store becomes two steady stores. Add a third and you have employees spending company time texting their buds more than pouring overrated java. Secondly, nobody likes a monopoly, especially a company like Starbucks that built stores next to independently owned coffee shops with the sole intent of eradicating them. It’s just bad form. Third, Starbucks failed to recognize the rising competition of energy drinks, choosing to ignore their popularity and focusing instead on pimping Paul McCartney CD’s. Add all this mismanagement up and the result is thousands of layoffs and store closings blamed on an economy that could never have sustained the expansion in the first place.

Starbucks isn’t really the problem. I used to keep the IDS store in Minneapolis in business by ingesting a gallon of iced tea a day. However, they’re evidence of incredibly irresponsible lending by banks. Why would any loan officer provide loans to a company when simple math states that their expansion will fail? In the Stone Age, a company had to provide a detailed business plan to the lender, explaining their strategy, the potential revenue and a timetable for repaying the loan. The only reasoning for allowing Starbucks, Home Depot and thousands of other crazy companies access to millions of dollars is that of fear itself. If a loan officer objected to the request on one of these companies, he or she risked losing commission or potentially their job. If Starbucks was denied a loan, all a high-ranking company minion had to do was contact the loan officer’s boss, threaten to take their investment elsewhere and watch the magic money appear. The fear of losing these million dollar clients overtook basic common sense. If Wells Fargo denied the loan, then Bank of America would cover it. This type of competition was supposed to be checked up on by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) but apparently they were too busy covering up accusations leveled at one of their dear friends, Bernard Madoff.

Currently, we are being told by President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Katzenjammer Kids that if we don’t act now on this stimulus, we face certain catastrophe. Our cell phones will stop working, McDonalds will close, the sky will turn dark, the Daleks will align themselves with the Hall of Doom, the Hellfire Club, the New Kids on the Block, the Green Goblin, the Hobgoblin, Chris Brown, Zombie Saddam Hussein, Plankton, Swiper and Barry Bonds forcing the entire world to watch endless broadcasts of crappy Dane Cook movies. Seriously, we’re supposed to be scared. Fear is the most powerful weapon in existence. This fear which Sean Hannity apparently has an issue with despite his supporting the politic of fear used to blow Baghdad to bits. Six years ago, George Bush convinced the majority of Americans Saddam Hussein was going to nuke the entire planet if we didn’t stop him. Oops.

President Obama’s chokehold on Wall Street executives’ pay is probably the only stimulus the economy really needs. All the average citizen needs to see is that they’re being looked out for and limiting pay for the bailout bozos accomplishes this more than building fifty roads. Despite millions spent on PR and ads attempting to convince the public otherwise, these people are greedy, selfish humans who will stop at nothing to achieve their goal – which is always more money and power. The entire country is keeping their eyes on these guys and the only way they’re ever going back to their free-wheelin’, wining and dining ways is to actually do their job. If they are so indispensable to the financial industry, let them prove it. Otherwise, let someone else in and see if they can make sense of this. There’s quite a few unemployed individuals right now and I’m sure they’d love to replace the people responsible for putting them out of work.

When the stimulus bill passes – and it will pass, I guarantee something magical will happen. The sky will clear, flowers will bloom and happy times will be here again. We will be sold this reality every day and at every press conference. If we are sold sunshine, most of us will consume it in abundance. Spring is indeed around the corner. We will start spending again, as we always have. We will get that better job, because we’ll try a little harder. We’ll make that mortgage payment; cheer our kids at basketball games and smile a little bit more. We will put our sunglasses on after dark and see the light of the moon because our leaders will tell us the sky is bright. We’ll get back into the swing of things, buy a vanilla latte and bask in the glory of change. Unfortunately, the change is only that of perception. We can alter our outlook and emotions but when the sunglasses are off, the world is still shades of infinite gray. We will be no better or worse. Our future is left up to our own dreams, desires and fears. Dreams are better. It’s the stuff life is made of.

Most of us have friends and family who have lost their job or had their hours cut because of this mess. People who bust their butt every day, and do the best they can to provide for their loved ones. People who give new parents outgrown baby clothes rather than sell them, give away an unused freezer, provide an extra hand on a house project and expect nothing in return. These are good people who’ve been screwed, yet they are not bitter nor do they beg. The make the best of what they have and look for ways to help those they care for rather than spend every day crying about something they can’t fix. They’ve never asked for a government hand-out and never will. They are proud of their work ethic, the life they lead and the friends they’ve made along the way. Our country is running short on role models these days. Maybe we should look at the people in our neighborhood. It is the human quality of empathy that truly shines when times are tough. Recovering from this economic catastrophe will not come from faith in government, rather the undeniable human spirit within us. If we learn anything from this, let it be that it is not the size of your house or the wealth of your portfolio that matters, but the size and wealth of our hearts, which is one possession that can never be lost or taken away.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Sum of the Interior

I love the Cramps. At least, I think I do. What’s not to adore about a band steeped in doo-wop, rockabilly, psychedelia and glam black leather? Lux Interior, the Cramps’ lead singer, died Tuesday of heart failure. Two days later, the Cramps broke Yahoo’s top ten searches of the day, easily their highest chart position of anything during their career. I found this a little odd, considering I know very few people who own Cramps records and those that do hardly blast their canon with religious fervor like AC/DC fans. My first Cramps record “Smell of Female” was purchased in 1994. One song stuck out: “Psychotic Reaction”. When I played it for my friend, Klink, he stated, “That’s pretty good, but the original by The Count Five is better.” Turns out, Klink was right. I bought a compilation with the Count Five version and it was superior. Later that same year, I played Klink a song from the Cramps CD “Psychedelic Jungle/Gravest Hits”, “Green Door”, which I thought rocked. Klink gave a similar response, telling me the original by Jim Lowe was much better. His parents even owned it! It took me a few years, but eventually I procured the 1959 “Green Door” by Jim Lowe, which again proved my friend right. Before Interior’s death, I was grooving to a 9-disc compilation called “Lux and Ivy’s Favorites”, compiled from decades of songs referenced in interviews by Lux Interior and his wife/guitarist, Poison Ivy. I realized this week that I’ve listened to those CD’s more in the last month than I had Cramps material in my entire life.

Lux Interior was a rare breed of rock and roller, the kind that would rather spend hours playing his favorite 45’s than discussing his own career. Along with Poison Ivy, I can think of very few musicians with the depth, passion and knowledge possessed by Interior. Kurdt Cobain, Paul Westerberg, Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher come to mind. Most musicians are concerned with discussing the profoundness of their own mediocre material. In the 1980’s, listening to Nikki Sixx wax poetic on Motley Crue classics like “Girls Girls Girls” and “Dr. Feelgood” was more humorous than Sunday morning’s “Bloom County.” Despite performances filled with more sexual references than the entire “Crue” catalog, listening to Interior discuss music is akin to a collegiate lecture. For further evidence of Interior’s and Ivy’s knowledge, I recommend Re/Search #14: Incredibly Strange Music Vol. 1, featuring an extensive interview with the duo.

It is unknown what really qualifies as “dance music” except that a song has an innate ability to compel humans to bounce and flail around in an uncontrollable fashion. To quote Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves, it’s “the plague that makes your booty move.” Interior was fascinated by this type of music, the kind that made you dance but you really don’t know why. Three songs compiled in Lux and Ivy’s Favorites, Volume One, exemplify this theory. “Shombalor” by Sheriff and the Ravels from 1959, has been described as doo-wop, rockabilly and rock n’ roll but nobody really knows what it is. There’s no actual definition of what “shombalor” the word even means. All I know is that you’re supposed to move “left-right-left-right-left-right”, “swing-ding” and a whole bunch of other moves that I guess you’re supposed to improvise. The rhythm is definitely contagious and falls into the old rock theory that the more confusing the words are, the cooler the song is. Similarly, 1956’s “Rubber Biscuit” by The Chips makes absolutely no sense except that it compels you to move. Subsequently covered by the Blues Brothers, it is a celebration of sped-up doo-wop confusion. I’ve probably played the original song fifty times in the last three weeks, although it would be far cooler blasting from a 1957 Chevrolet than a 1999 Ford Winstar. The last song on the CD, 1958’s “Jennie Lee” is by Jan and Arnie, who later changed their name to Jan and Dean. It is straightforward doo-wop with several differences. It is relatively unproduced, and has one of the deepest echoes of any song in the era. The lyrics are also somewhat unintelligible. In an era where anyone can become their own personal Phil Spector, Lux Interior loved songs that weren’t quite ready for prime-time radio.

A few weeks ago I offered to give a copy of Lux and Ivy’s Favorites to one of my music buddies, Vladimir. “No Cramps,” he said.
“Are you sure? This stuff’s really good,” I replied.
“No Cramps. No Cramps.”
At the time, I wondered why Vladimir felt this way. He likes many of their punk contemporaries like the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and the Misfits. After Interior’s death, I began to understand his reasoning. For all their depth of knowledge and exhibitionism, the Cramps didn’t have many great original songs. Personally, I can name six I consider great rock and roll songs: “Human Fly”, “The Mad Daddy”, “Goo Goo Muck”, “Surfin’ Dead”, “The Creature From the Black Leather Lagoon” and “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns.” Cover songs excluded, much Cramps material sounds like songs that Lux and Ivy thought Cramps records should sound like and be about, which is different than the material that influenced them. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against artists writing songs suited to their audience. KISS did it for thirty years. Every so often, Gene Simmons complains about KISS’ exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, arguing the band’s massive popularity is enough to warrant induction. Stage performance aside, KISS has about as many great rock songs as the Cramps, which is honestly not enough to jam out with Neil Young and David Bowie.

Lux Interior probably didn’t care about being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He never expressed envy when his contemporaries Iggy Pop and the Ramones were inducted. Interior truly loved touring and playing up the band’s psychobilly, sci-fi and S/M image. If he turned on fans to any of the obscure yet fabulous music he adored, he was happy. His on-stage persona was a gateway to another reality. A world filled with B-Movies, zombies and vampire vixens. He encouraged fans to come along and participate in the Cramps’ celebration of decadence. I don’t know anyone who went to a Cramps show and did not have a great time. Although he may never gain the recognition of Iggy Pop, Lux Interior resides in those ever-dwindling record stores. He’s in the Sonics 45’s, the gigantic wall posters, DVDs of “Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!” and on the lips of anyone who gets asked the ambiguous question: “Can you find me something cool?”

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Broken Heroes"

I feel sorry for Michael Phelps. A young man of 23 who has made the horrible mistake of wanting to hang out and party with college kids his age, became yet another unwilling victim of our postmodern media culture, where if you do something wrong the whole world discovers it in a matter of hours. The infamous photo of Phelps taking a hit from the bong, along with the accompanying News of the World story, details a man not on the edge and incapable of coping with fame, but someone who relished the idea of being the big man on campus and all the perks that come with it. Everyone on this planet has been in positions similar to that of Michael Phelps. It may not be easy to admit (especially to our children), but all of us have been is embarrassing situations we’d like to forget or at least pretend never happened. The main difference is there weren’t cameras photographing every idiotic move we made. In 2009, the paparazzi isn’t just on T.V., selling their latest juice to TMZ, it’s in our own backyard, at the stores we go to, the bars we hang out at and even in our homes. Big Brother is officially here, true believers and we hold its power in the palm of our hand.

I like funny pictures of my friends as much as the next person. I’d also like to think I have the testicular fortitude to tolerate embarrassing pictures featuring myself. However, I don’t think anyone should be running around photographing and videotaping every move we make. Most of us can probably think of something they did or said in the last 24 hours that we wouldn’t like photographed or recorded. I’ll confess to never wanting anyone to see footage of me running around my house like a hamster on steroids looking for my wallet or car keys, only to find they’re on the kitchen counter next to my electric bill. What about you? Nobody wants to be photographed when they’re not at their best. Unfortunately, we are paying the privacy price for our super-awesome cameras and cell phones. It’s ok to want to channel your inner Annie Leibowitz and Martin Scorsese, just try not to do it at the expense of others. If you are fortunate to have a 1973 Monte Carlo, do you drive 120 miles per hour because you can? We live in an era where we have to use responsibility and restraint with our cool toys or they will surely be our undoing.

Anyone who wishes to condemn or ridicule Michael Phelps needs to take a hard look at the great journalism featured in People, US Weekly and my personal favorite, OK! Magazine. Since when have celebrities and sports figures been such bastions of crystal clean morality? Gossip guru Perez Hilton has made a career and a personal fortune following the exploits of “tramp troika” Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan and Britney Spears a few years ago. They’ve since settled down (for them, anyway) but the gossip mavens have found new victims in Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and unfortunately, Mr. Phelps. Phelps, whose young career should be defined by athletic triumph, is now going to be stalked every time he goes to McDonalds for five Egg McMuffins. Consider, for one second, the possibility of Michael Phelps not living up to his hype during the Olympics (anyone remember Bode Miller?). If he had only won a few medals, he would have been able to return to a basically normal life and frat parties. Maybe Phelps wishes that were the case. Just because he was given the ability to be one of the worlds’ best athletes should not prevent him from being a normal 23-year old with all the rights, privileges and stupid mistakes that come with it.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, there was no athlete more respected and admired than Mickey Mantle. A country boy from Oklahoma with good looks and unmatchable speed and power, the Hall of Fame Yankee was idolized by millions of boys and respected by parents for his clean-cut, all-American image. But in 1970, a book called “Ball Four” written by ex-teammate Jim Bouton, shattered the Mickey Mantle myth. Bouton described a baseball culture filled of booze and women with Mantle as one of the stars. It seemed Mickey Mantle did not actually spend all his free time signing autographs and visiting sick kids. Instead, he frequented bars and drank himself into an idiotic stupor during the entire baseball season. His drinking buddy, the great Billy Martin, was traded by the Yankees in attempt to reign in Mantle’s wild ways. It did not work. Subsequent books on Mantle attribute his many injuries to alcohol abuse. It is believed had Mantle been able to control his problems; he would have been the greatest baseball player of all time instead of one of the top twenty.

So how was “the Mick” able to keep this wholesome image throughout his career without being exposed as a fraud? I guess the answer is fairly rhetorical. Mantle played in an era with limited media coverage. There were just three news networks that broadcasted a whopping 1/2 hour of world news every night. If someone went to a newspaper or Sports Illustrated with a story regarding Mantle’s debauchery, the Yankees convinced the publication to shelve the story. It wasn’t difficult in those days to do so. Can you say “free Yankees tickets”? I bet lots of editors could. This left a freelance reporter with very few options. What were they going to do, take out a small loan, start their own paper and publish it themselves? My, oh my, how far we have come, yet how little we’ve learned.

Since the publication of “Ball Four”, books and articles detailing the failures of athletes, celebrities and icons have dominated our almost infinite media. Yet we are still compelled to place individuals on a pedestal and force expectations upon them none of us could ever hope to live up to. If a hero is inherently flawed, they are made into something more palatable (see Kurdt Cobain). We put them up, watch them fall, kick sand in their face and cheer them if they “come back” (see Robert Downey Jr.). Our concept of celebrity is more than ironic, it’s truly pathetic.

Our new President, Barack Obama, smokes. Period. That’s it. End of debate. Despite prodding by the likes of Katie Couric and Anderson Cooper, Obama will not admit to quitting smoking. Continually embarrassed and annoyed by this questioning, our President rightfully waffles on an answer, knowing that many children in this country look up to him and their parents expect him to be an example. In the grand scheme of things, this is the last thing we should be criticizing Barack Obama about. If he leaves a smoke in the oval office and burns down the White House, that’s one thing. Expecting the President of the United States to be without even the most human of flaws, is another. If smoking two packs a day helps Obama deal with running the free world, then leave him alone. We all have our fallibilities, failures, ticks and addictions. Obama, if nothing else, is more like us in that respect than the celebrity cartoon characters we encourage our kids to admire.

We are less than a decade into this brave new world of uber-media and have yet to fully comprehend its impact. It’s not only the mistakes of Michael Phelps filling the internet rabbit hole, but also the exploits of many of us shared in a pretense of innocence. Take a look in the mirror and ask yourself, do you really want your children to see you glossy-eyed with a beer stained shirt proclaiming your eternal youth while partying at the local bar? Don’t worry. It’s not a big deal. Just a simple misjudgment. A regrettable activity that won’t happen again for the sole reason you will be careful not to be caught next time. Currently, America is taking Wall Street to task for its million dollar perks and the concept of entitlement “just because”. However, would we not take that free trip to Las Vegas, the all-expenses paid for resort weekends and the nightly cocktail parties on the company dollar if we could? Like the kid alone in the candy store, the free Tootsie-Pop is yours, providing nobody sees you. Whether we like it or not, boys and girls, the cameras are indeed on and the whole world is watching. Take a lick, if you dare.