Saturday, May 30, 2009

Commencement


Commencement: An act, instance or time of making a beginning

When one thinks of commencement and commencement speeches, very rarely does anyone remember the minute instances and details of this important occasion, only the blur that occurs inside the mind when it is obvious your life will change in a permanent way. I remember little of mine, except that I wore short shorts, which garnered criticism from my grandfather and compliments from girls. I have no recollection of who gave the commencement address or what it was about. Those of you who have sat through a handful of these events, be it high school or college, probably have a good idea. The speaker talks about the future, how it is what you make it, that it is important that each and every one of you make a positive mark on society. It seems every commencement speaker has the same playbook of clich├ęs, analogies, and contrite optimism.

Politicians and celebrity speakers are especially guilty of this, considering they rarely touch on the subjects most knowledgeable to them. Oprah shouldn’t be talking about the future, she should be giving tips on how to best use the never-ending pasta bar at Olive Garden. Billy Joel should only be giving tips on how to avoid writer’s block and car crashes. Bill Clinton has no inspirational thoughts on the future, unless they involve expensive speaking engagements during which he spends over an hour discussing and elaborating on essentially nothing. President Barack Obama’s advice for graduates should not include how anything is possible, but if you screw up your life to the extent where you are too big to fail, he will happily bail you out. Why are these people asked to give motivational speeches when someone from the local community students actually know would have a far greater impact?

A good friend of mine recently gave a commencement address to a local class of high school seniors. For three years, he had been their teacher, inspiring and engaging students in English, a subject considered quite hard to connect with kids especially in the age of texting, social networking and general disinterest. A man who does not accept failure easily, he gained students’ admiration and respect, going above and beyond to help students with their work. His reward for such outstanding work was termination due to budget cuts. His dedicated students started a Facebook group and presented the school board with a petition filled with hundreds of signatures to no avail. What’s done is done. Rules are rules and there is very little people can do to change them. On that night, many students received their first dose of adult reality: there is indeed a limit to things you can do and accomplish. A harsh lesson but one that needs to be learned, sooner or later. This moment may have been in my friend’s thoughts as he addressed his group of seniors. What followed was not only the best commencement speech I’ve heard, but the only one which addressed students on their level.

He began his speech with the frank statement that he considered declining the speaking invitation due to the upcoming change in his life. He decided to accept on the reasoning both the Class of 2009 and he were facing an uncertain future. This is especially true this year for both high school and college graduates. The job market is dim, if nonexistent for many students. There are millions of experienced, qualified candidates for every job right now. The quality of worker seen at the average Wal-Mart and McDonald’s has risen to the point where the average employee is overqualified for their menial tasks. The economic collapse (people should really stop using “downturn:” it is an insult to intelligence) has affected thousands of teachers like my friend. For the first time in many years, there are few, if any openings for even the most exceptional educators, a description that still does a disservice to my friend’s ability. The odds in winning the lottery look better than landing a good job. This fact is not lost on the class of 2009. Always a realist, my friend chose to address the ups and downs of this most uncertain future.

Personal uncertainty, he stated, is a time “when you learn who you are.” Friendships may become distant, changes may be unexpected and drastic, but how you choose to deal with these events will be what makes or breaks you as a person. “You will become different, you will become an individual and have responsibilities…you will have to make decisions.” Most graduates in high school or college will witness their snowglobe world become much larger and hazier. They will soon find themselves in different surroundings and with new people, whose lives and experiences may not mirror their own. They most likely will not be impressed with athletic accomplishments or delinquent endeavors. They may not care for your favorite music or if they do, they may know far more about it than you do. It becomes difficult to impress people with stories. What remains is the individual’s personality. Are you caring or callous? Do you go out of your way to help others in need or do you “phone it in”? Are you your own person or do you follow the crowd, adapting their behaviors, likes and dislikes to avoid scrutiny? These decisions define what an individual is. If you are willing to be yourself, make logical decisions and back them up, the rewards are far-reaching and permanent. Become what you are, not what someone else wants you to be.

My friend’s speech turned to the subject of love and friendship. “Keep the ones you love near and dear to you…receive love and show love.” He stated that when times are hard, those you love will get you through. It is important to not lose these people as your lives change, but stay in contact with them as best you can. They are the people who will be by your side as you go through the good times and bad. They are the friends and family who will celebrate your marriage or comfort you during a divorce. They are the people who hold your newborn child and help you cope when that child becomes a teenager and totals your car. It is vital not to lose these connections or let them become distant. In our Web 2.0 era of Facebook and Twitter, it is still all too easy to not return phone calls or emails. You will get caught up in your lives; the day-to-day tasks that drain the energy once used to stay up until the crack of dawn discussing life, the universe and everything. It is important that you keep making the time, even if it is just a text or a quick shout-out. If you are there for them, they will be there for you. Great friendships last a lifetime. What began as copying a worksheet or playing a videogame turns into car repair, home remodeling or just reminiscing over a few select beverages. The next time you see a group of elderly guys chatting away over a pot of coffee at the local diner or a group of older ladies making a quilt, think of how friendship and love can be with you throughout your lifetime.

Never one to display overt emotion, my friend exhibited it at the end of his speech. It occurred to me and possibly to him as well, that his speech was not just for graduates, but for all of us listening. At different times we all go through commencements and face the task of making our beginning. Sometimes the occasion is a happy one, sometimes not so much. As the Class of 2009 and my friend begin a new phase of life, there are many others who face an unknown future. It is up to us as individuals if we choose to celebrate change or lament it. We all need to have faith and love inside, regardless of the obstacles before us. I have known my friend for twenty-five years, a friendship I cannot come close to stating how much it means to me. Both of us are gamers at heart, always looking for the inside edge in Mario Kart as well as life. If there is one thing I have learned from our friendship, it is to never give up; an attribute I hope to pass to my young children as they grow. The future is always bright if you chose to make it so.

Begin the beginning
Eyes to the future
Still fighting
Still winning


Copyright 2009 Adam Koeppe


Commencement definition derived from Miriam Webster

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Garage Sale of the Dead

The month of May tends to be the beginning of garage sale season in many parts of the United States. A time when spring-cleaning gives way to a collection of unwanted artifacts and questionable Christmas gifts. For many, it is the great American pastime, with weekends spent scouring home after home in search of a needed item at a steep discount or treasure hunting for valuable baubles that missed the eye of their owner. Be it baby clothes, a dining room set or the first Van Halen record, there’s usually something for everybody at a citywide garage sale near you. Unfortunately, this is more accurate than ever in 2009, as many families are being forced to sell possessions which were household necessities a year before. For some, it is a means to make up for a lost job or a jump in their mortgage payment. For others, it is a forced liquidation as the home in which they are having the sale will soon not be theirs.

A feeling of dread comes across me as I walk from house to house in a development constructed less than a decade ago. Sales are everywhere the eye can see and bargains galore, if you can stomach the reason an $800 grill is selling for a hundred bucks. The signs of departure are sadly obvious. Boats, fish houses, foosball tables and nautilus sets priced to sell and sell quickly. These items can’t fit into an apartment or town home. They are physical evidence of a family trying to live the American Dream and failing. Many will say it is their own fault. Not reading the fine print of the mortgage loan, maxing out credit cards and failing to develop a monthly budget are fallibilities too common these days, but it is difficult, if not completely callous, to overlook the suffering on the faces of so many who were just trying to achieve what so many take for granted. It is easy for many of us to laugh at the saps profiled in the news who cry about not making ends meet on a six-figure income. It is far more difficult to see them standing in the back corner of their garage with a change box.

It is in our nature to take advantage of the financial mistakes of others, particularly if the plight can be reconciled inside the conscience. When I scored a 1959 Erector set, an original 45 of Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy” and a copy of “Uncle Scrooge #6 (in which Scrooge drinks beer), it never occurred to me to tell the owner they are selling these items for peanuts. It’s their own fault, right? If they actually took the time to price these items or bring them to the almighty “Antiques Roadshow,” they wouldn’t be dumb enough to sell them for a buck. This is the conceit people who frequent garage sales and flea markets abide by: if you don’t know what it is worth – too bad. This philosophy works best with strangers and in towns a person does not frequent very often. I broke this unwritten code a few years ago when I saw a Carlton Fisk rookie card selling for a dollar at the residence of a man I had known most of my life. Joe is a good guy, someone who would never take advantage of another just to make a quick buck. I couldn’t in good faith buy the card of the Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer without telling Joe it was worth substantially more. Joe told me to take it anyway, stating the price was the price and he wasn’t into collecting baseball cards anymore. As I paid him, I realized Joe knew and abided by the unwritten rules of garage sales. Purchasing “Pudge” for that price still made me uneasy and I have yet to add it to my collection. It is still sitting on my bookcase, waiting to be given to a deserving recipient. For some reason I never thought I deserved to own it, at least not on those circumstances.

Americans lucky enough to have avoided this recession will find deals aplenty if they are willing to overlook the economic circumstances involved in the sale. It is doubtful anyone feels sorry for Macy’s when they get 50 to 75 percent off the entire purchase. Macy’s is just a store. It’s not a real person. That fallacy works if one forgets many people work for Macy’s and are facing employment elimination if the company’s profit margin continues to decline. We celebrate the great deals and brag about them to our friends because that’s just what we do. If the profit is impersonal, then it is justified. Most of the mortgage brokers, bankers and financial advisors who made a fortune bankrupting thousands of people probably thought the same way. It’s the customer’s fault if they don’t understand what they’re signing right? They’re not being forced to do anything they don’t want to. It is their choice to invest or take out a ginormous loan. If they aren’t fully aware of the consequences, well that’s just too damn bad. Sounds pretty vile and empathetic, doesn’t it? When we celebrate our garage sale and department store booty, aren’t we doing pretty much the same thing?

It is many American’s nature to want lots of stuff and not have to pay diddly-squat for it. Pyramid marketing scams work on many people for a reason. The concept of getting an “inside deal” better than most folks is like panning for gold in the Old West except there’s no guns, criminals, diseases, lawlessness and the actual chance of making a profit. Take a step back the next time you’re at one of these garage sales that seem too good to be true. When you see a sweet motorcycle for two grand, children’s trampolines for twenty bucks or a rockin’ stereo system practically being given away, think for a bit of the circumstances possibly involved in the situation. The garage sale is real but for many Americans selling their possessions, it represents the death of their dream. Our lives are indeed long and the potential of rebuilding all that is lost is possible, no matter how dire the situation may be. However, many families forced to give up so much may decide it is just not worth having their lives upheaved again. Their belief in the stereotypical “American Dream” has disappeared along with the home they thought they would live in for decades or a lifetime. These aren’t just garage sales anymore. They’re bloody funerals.

If you frequent any of these sales this year, maybe offer a little extra cash even if it goes against the unwritten garage sale code. Be thankful you have the extra money to buy the trampoline for your kids. Buy some of the homemade cookies and lemonade next to the change box and tell the seller how much you appreciate it. Look them in the eye and give them a reassuring smile. It may not mean much but it is the least you can do outside of ridding them of their George Foreman Grill. As you drive home, count your blessings alongside the great finds. Life takes many an unexpected turn as we live it. It is easier to live without things than empathy or conscience; unappraisable, invaluable attributes that are definitely not worth haggling about.

Copyright 2009 Adam Koeppe

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Trashmen Live: The Bird is Still the Word!

The Medina Ballroom in Medina, Minnesota is the kind of place you’d expect to find flea markets and Johnny Cash impersonators. The place where the talent and audience share the same bathroom. It was in Medina men’s room I ran into Tony Andreason, lead guitarist and vocalist of the Trashmen, the 1960’s band famous for their hit single, “Surfin’ Bird.” “This is a little bit different than the Cabooze,” I said. Tony smiled, stating “That was a great time.” I told him I was the guy in front of the stage who was plugged into the electric outlet, a phrase coined by my friend, Klink, to describe my excitement at 1998’s Big Hits of Mid-America Concert at the Cabooze in Minneapolis. The concert featured the major Minnesota rock and roll bands of the 1960’s such as the Del-Counts, Castaways and Underbeats. The Trashmen were the headliners that evening, a night where I finally realized why all those kids in the sixties danced and screamed like maniacs. Pure, stripped down rock and roll, played at a fast tempo with maximum volume does something to the insides. It’s impossible to just stand; you gotta dance!

“Surfin’ Bird” was one of many 45’s in my Mom’s record collection. When I was about five, she started to let me play them by myself. Of course, there were casualties (sorry “Georgy Girl” by the Seekers, I didn’t mean it). Of all the records Mom had, a few were played far more than others, one of which was “Surfin’ Bird” and “King of the Surf” by the Trashmen. There are no A or B-sides in a kids mind, just the raw feeling of something fun. I tended to play both songs equally but I confess to preferring “the Bird.” It sounded like nothing else I’ve heard, a song which demanded to be played loud. I had no general knowledge of the history and hierarchies of rock and roll. To my five year-old self, the Trashmen were just as great as the Beatles, Elvis and Roy Orbison. When we would go driving and “Surfin’ Bird” (or “King of the Surf”) would come on the radio, she would let me crank the radio to the maximum level she could tolerate. Thirty years later, I still have that 45 and still play it a little too loud for comfort.

Klink scored a group of us preferred seating at the Trashmen’s Medina show. As we took our seats, they seemed similar to the Ray Liotta scene in “Goodfellas” when he takes his girlfriend to see Bobby Vinton. Many in the audience dressed semi-formal and the waiters came to the table to take drink orders. This seemed a little too nice for rock and roll. This wasn’t Bobby Vinton singing “Roses are Red,” this was the Trashmen! A band that caused Family Guy’s Peter Griffin to torture his dysfunctional clan with “Surfin’ Bird” for and entire ten-minute segment of the show. The use of the song on Family Guy propelled “Surfin’ Bird” back into the charts 45 years after its initial release, hitting number eight on iTunes and cracking the top fifty in the U.K. It was doubtful many in the Medina audience knew this as the average age was significantly older than Family Guy’s target market.

The opening band, the Surf Dawgs, were and excellent instrumental group, drummer Sally West being particularly outstanding. Their version of the James Bond Theme was the highlight of a very solid performance. I spoke to lead guitarist Tom Kaplan after their set and his enthusiasm of rock and roll was obvious. The Surf Dawgs have a passion for instrumentals, a genre seldom heard these days. I hope a band this dedicated and talented finds the audience they deserve.

The Trashmen came on stage a half hour later wearing matching buttoned red shirts like it was 1963. The band tuned their own instruments before they began, which took less than a minute, a feat I’d challenge any modern group to repeat. Tony Andreason, playing a 1957 Stratocaster began the show saying all the songs in the set the Trashmen had recorded sometime during their 47 years together. The opening song, “My Woodie” an ode to the 1960’s station wagon had my knees moving. I knew I wouldn’t be sitting in the prestige seats for long. The band’s sound was so spot-on and precise it acted like a time machine back to an era where every kid spun records in their room and dreamed of being in a rock and roll band. As Andreason began introducing “King of the Surf” a song the great Dick Dale called his favorite surf song, I could not sit any longer. My legs were movin’ and my heart was pumpin’. I stood by some die-hard rock and roll guys who positioned themselves in the exact center of the speakers. As “King of the Surf” kicked in, I realized quickly this was the best spot for sound. I felt the song through me like that four-year-old from years past. Andreason’s breakneck solo amplified the chorus:

Well I'm a high ridin' surfer and it takes three crunchers
and a heavy to wipe me outI can do a double spinner before you count to threeWhoa oh, king of the surf

Soon after, Tony Andreason introduced the song “Comic Book Collector”, a song that channeled a 1988 memory when the song was released. It seems so long ago when local radio station were actually local and had the authority to promote new songs. It didn’t get played for long but I remembered it. Rock and roll has the incredable ablity to do this; to take you back deep inside your memories to pasts long forgotten. Eventually, I gravitated to the front left of the stage, the only part of the Media where one can get close and still dance. The Trashmen ripped through Dick Dale’s “Miserlou,” a song showcasing Andreason’s gifts as a guitarist. They slowed the tempo down for a nice, bluesy version of “House of New Orleans” which was very tight and made me wonder how the band might have evolved had they not been pushed off the charts by the Beatles and the British Invasion.

Andreason’s dry humor introduced “the song you all came to hear.” There was a slight pause which I used to scream out “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!” Bassist Bob Reed pointed to me with a thumbs up. It wasn’t just the adrenaline of a great concert causing me to proclaim this, to me it was a no-brainer. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been inducting fairly obscure artists under the “Early Influence” category for years. I love Little Anthony and the Imperials, but the strenght of “Tears on My Pillow” and “Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Coco Pop” pales in comparison to the Trashmen’s greatest song. This is not a comparison of influence, but one of durablity. The ability to reach generations of listeners and affect them with a song for almost fifty years pretty much says “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The Trashmen launched into “Surfin Bird” in same fashion one could expect from “You Shook Me All Night Long” or “Born to Run.” A two-minute, thirty second burst of rock and roll transcendance. It makes your heart glad.

The Trashmen invited the Surf Dawgs on stage to jam on the final number, a powerhouse cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.” The tightness and passion from the musicians was more than is seen at the average arena show. These were people not going through the motions, but having fun doing what every kid used to dream of: play great rock and roll. The merchandise table was busy after the concert ended, the Trashmen staying until they met the last fan waiting. It was heartening to see so many vinyl copies of the band’s albums being sold, a sign thing might becoming full circle in the universe of music. The Trashmen’s signature t-shirt: they gave the world “the Bird” stands as piece of juvenile innuendo Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane would definitely appreciate. As I ventured back into the Medina men’s room to take care of business before I left, I noticed a white-haired guy I had seen by the left side of the stage during the entire performance. I assumed he was the sound guy or manager. “No,” he replied. “I’m just an old groupie. My first concert was the Doors.” Unreal. Sometimes the most interesting parts of a concert happen in the bathroom. That’s rock and roll for you.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Maureen Dowd, Stop Your Damn Crying!

Things change. It’s a basic fact of life. Things that were once popular become niche-ridden fads. The last ten years have seen the evaporation of record stores, the rise and fall of five-dollar lattes and the end of VHS. Nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain. Most clear-minded individuals understand this circle, with a notable exception. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has spent a good part of this year whining about the potential demise of the newspaper industry. This has required little journalistic or literary skill, just complete jealousy toward the media that is supplanting her. The collapse of the newspaper industry has happened at a remarkable pace, a thought that probably never occurred to the Pulitzer Prize winner as she toasted the construction of the massive New York Times building almost a decade ago.

It should be noted that Ms. Dowd is a wealthy woman. If her precious position at the Times is eliminated, her life (but possibly not her influence) will go on. Most likely, you will not see her at the local food shelf or selling her belongings and property to raise money just to survive. She can use her decades of connections and awards, land another book deal, become a talking head on a cable news network or God forbid use her exceptional writing ability in another format. I hear “Marmaduke” is in need of a good ghost writer.

Ms. Dowd’s incessant criticism and mocking of Twitter and Google News reveals her to be nothing but a spoiled, grown-up brat who is always used to getting her way. Nobody likes having their baby taken away. Be it the moronic hair bands of the eighties getting their party ticket crushed by Nirvana, auto companies discovering their monster trucks are no longer saleable to the masses or political parties realizing their ideology appeals to an ever-shrinking minority, everyone cries a little when the tide turns against them. Most people realize they have to buck up, find a way to reinvent your product and hope your message resonates with a modern audience. Apparently, Ms. Dowd believes she is entitled to her position regardless of any major economic shifts and has chosen to use her over-inflated salary to defend her soon to be extinct industry and her own status as a member of the elite media. There is a reason Bob Dylan never writes songs about his lack of record sales. It is insulting to the audience and pathetic to endure.

There are bigger issues to discuss regarding the newspaper industry than Maureen Dowd’s precious employment. Is it really so awful that the internet has provided almost infinite sources to get the news, leaving the reader to choose the medium to get content? In a supposed free-market society, shouldn’t this “evening of the playing field” benefit journalism as a whole? Why isn’t Ms. Dowd invigorated to have to compete for readership alongside the likes of Meghan McCain, Harry Shearer or Nikolas Sarkozy? Competition should bring out the best in people, except for those who prefer that there is none. Maybe Ms. Dowd is afraid of losing all those sweet business expenses; the free plane rides, lunches and dinners with the political elite? When she flies across the country to interview a person for a column that is is not long enough to qualify as an undergrad paper, I have a good assumption she is not paying for a darn thing.

The hubris of the newspaper industry is staggering. Most of these dinosaur papers believe they have the inalienable right to make the news rather than just report it. They take sides, show bias on one side of an issue over another and pay themselves handsomely in the process. This philosophy used to enable writers to get scoops and favors, which help in attempting to garner the almighty Pulitzer. However, this concept has devolved into a sense of pure entitlement. The inauguration of President Barack Obama was covered by every news network in the known universe, yet most major newspapers forked over thousands of dollars to send correspondents to witness the event live even as their parent companies stock value continued to disintegrate. This sense of entitlement in a Web 2.0 world is laughable. The belief that a newspaper can provide an authoritarian influence over public opinion is the same as General Motors’ fallacy of Hummer-hungry humanoids willing to pay five bucks for a gallon of gas.

This “same as it ever was, same as it ever was” attitude has doomed newspaper as well as big auto to almost certain devolution, if not all-out extinction. Maureen Dowd’s columns are not just printed in the New York Times, but are circulated nation-wide to an ever-dwindling readership. Papers have made the ill-fated choice to circle the wagons and protect their own, rather than publish op-eds by local writers. Similar to General Motors’ attitude toward Japanese automakers like Toyota, if they pretend there is not a threat to supremacy, than the threat is nonexistent. However, why should I (or any other reader) take the time to read the old-school columnists when I can pick and choose from an almost infinite amount of websites and blogs which have writers who are taking more chances, handling more controversial subjects and are just plain better. I can read columnists such as Ken Rosenthal and Jim Ross who cater to subjects I am interested in rather than be forced to ingest overrated writers like Garrison Keillor and Ms. Dowd. Given the choice, I’ll take the literary smackdown of Good ‘ol J.R. any day.

The one fundamental difference between the plight of Ms. Dowd and the thousands of unemployed (or soon to be unemployed) autoworkers is sadly economical. Displaced autoworkers have not only lost their job, but may lose their pension, healthcare or even their house. Whether she chooses to admit it or not, Maureen Dowd has influence and affluence, something most other folks could only dream to possess. Yet her pain is somehow more important, as she has chosen to broadcast it all over the country while the guy that just received his pink slip from Chrysler has little time to complain as he figures out a way to provide for his family. This lack of understanding and empathy is unfortunately typical for the newspaper industry, which only sees the plight of others through a champagne glass. The millions of individuals getting their news through the internet have recognized this arrogance and have responded with click after click to new forms of media. The internet is not to blame but the failure to recognize and adapt to a 21st Century society most certainly is. Maureen Dowd, stop your damn crying! Welcome to the future. Deal with it.