Thursday, October 21, 2010

Proposally Yours - A guide to the 2010 Election

The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” – Lyndon Johnson

“Whatever it is, I’m against it” – Groucho Marx

To say politicians are honest is like pretending a horse doesn’t poop in a parade. No matter how pretty the horse is, behind it is some serious stink. It is no secret Americans are sick of the smell coming from the national and state capitals. Despite this, the same bozos keep running again and again, fueled by a mostly unknown financial machine. The ones who claim they are new, are going to represent real Americans (as opposed to fake ones) and are going to shake up Washington will be the preaching their newfound experience in the next election cycle. The only constant regarding politicians is they despise being mocked and called on their incessant hypocracy. Being astutely knowledgeable at such things, I humbly put forth the following proposal which, if enacted, will swiftly bring about the change the citizens of this great nation desperately need.

I used to make fun of those people who chose to use their democratic right in the voting booth to write in “Mickey Mouse” or “Lizard People.” In retrospect, it seems these righteous individuals knew what was going on with the political system more than those who mindlessly support the same political party year after year. If all elections, be they local, state or national, are tinted by crooked people and crooked money, why should anyone vote for these people? The option is always there to write in the name of another qualified individual. Maybe the vote would not be considered wasted if the voter chose to write in an eligible person rather than a cartoon character. To the millions of readers who still may not know who they may vote for this November, I modestly offer a viable alternative: myself.

Some of you may be asking “Adam, what makes you think you are qualified to run for public office?” My humble response, in a nutshell, is what makes you think those running for office now are qualified? Every political poll shows the public has little, if any, confidence in the individuals currently in charge, some of whom do not know how to use the internet and would have significant difficulty reading a book. Not only does yours truly know how to use the internet, he can even repair a copy machine, a skill that is indeed quite rare. Further, considering the current incumbents do their job about ten percent of the time (a generous estimate), I find it would be possible to hold office on the local, state and national levels simultaneously and still have time to play my Xbox.

My Howard Lake math shows that if I perform four of these positions to the best of my ability twenty percent of the time, that would still give me ample time to play Halo. To accomplish this feat, all I would have to do is avoid all political talk shows, skip out on ribbon cuttings for projects I have nothing to do with and most importantly, refuse to campaign for the next election while serving in the current term. The latter seems to take up 90 percent of politicans’ time these days. I can even promise the public I will show up for votes most of the time. 51 percent attendance seems to be quite acceptable to most incumbents, regardless of the office held.

If anyone would like to financially support this endeavor, I have set up a PAC fund, which is called A.D.A.M. (a darn awesome man). These funds would be used to pay for necessary expenses such as copy machines, several pairs of Converse shoes and expanding my Xbox game collection. Considering donor dollars have been used in the past to pay for a Saks wardrobe and a continuous supply of cheeseburgers, my needs are quite modest in comparison.

If writing in yours truly isn’t your cup of tea, might I suggest you take some time and think of other worthy individuals worth writing in on election day. If you like your neighbor, write them in. If you don’t like your neighbor, write them in. Think your pastor would be a good congressperson, put their name down – nobody really follows that “separation of church and state” silliness anyway. Stumped for a Christmas gift for that hard-to-buy-for person? Give them a senate seat! It’s been done before. Personally, I plan to write in several qualified individuals (other than myself) this November. Fallen Minnesota auto mogul Denny Hecker would make a great judge. He has extensive experience in the legal field that would be a natural fit should he ever preside over the dreaded recount. Twins great Kent Hrbek would be an awesome state auditor. To be honest, I’m not sure about that but I’d really like some free food at his restaurant.

It is my hope the previous passages have made you think about how much your vote really matters this November. Every citizen has the responsibility to be involved in the political process to ensure our government is as functional as possible. Whatever you do on November 2nd, please don’t stay home. Don’t stay at work (remember it is your legal right to vote on company time). Go to your local polling place and do something. It doesn’t matter what you do there, just exercise your constitutional right. People have given their lives to preserve this privilege, so please don’t take it for granted. And if you find it in your heart to vote for this humble author, well that would be just swell.


Your future councilman/mayor/state representative/congressman/governor/president,

Adam Koeppe

Monday, August 9, 2010

Attack of the Singing Hamsters!

“There’s a world of laughter, a world of tears, a world of hope and a world of fears.”

Fear is a scary thing. It is the only emotion where there is really no answer. Nobody knows why or how it happens but it does. It is the thing which grips your stomach like a claw. It is the reason you stay up at night thinking to yourself. It is the never-ending question of doubt of yourself and reality. It is the mental cancer that infects us all; a disease that can never be cured but only contained.

To a large extent, we are alone in our fears. Sure, we can fear terrorists, the government or the New York Yankees as a unified group but most are left up to our own psyches and the therapists who steal our money pretending to understand them. Some fears are somewhat explainable such as thunder and lightning – unless you or someone you know has been struck by a bolt from the blue. Then it’s pretty real. Fears of government are mostly irrational – unless you’ve ever been interrogated or audited by the I.R.S. Clowns, on the other hand…are sometimes just clowns. Yet, an invention designed to bring joy to children has been thrust into the completely creepy category over the past few decades. Before Stephen King tapped into coulrophobia with “It”, this phenomenon had been manifesting itself for centuries. Irrational? Possibly. Real? Absolutely.

The newest phobia, as far as I understand it, is the fear of animatronic toys; called automatonophobia (makes sense if you break it down English-style). This fear includes (but is not limited to) ventriloquist dummies, Muppets, Talking Smack Elmo and pretty much every preschool toy available at your local Target and Wal-Mart. They’re everywhere, if you think about it enough. “Talkie Tina” has been reincarnated as your daughter’s best friend Dora and is secretly working with Chucky’s son “Baby Tad” to turn your humble home into the Amityville Horror. My kids are about 50/50 on these. They both love “Baby Tad” but some gifts have left them bug-eyed and terrified. They really sound like a doomed soul is stuck inside them.

The automated toys which tend to terrify my children are the ones my wife and I bought for personal amusement. We purchased a signing Dean Martin years ago (something we thought was pretty darn cool) but Shane and Romana can’t sit for one second in a room when Dino is working his robotic mojo. My “A” in Psychology 115 qualifies me enough to deduce that the moving hands, mouth and feet of this 2 ½ foot toy causes them to question reality as they know it, the challenge of their perceived reality being too strong to rationalize a talking robot. In other words, it’s just too damn creepy.

A little over a month ago, I started noticing my five year old, Shane, closing the porch door. At first, I thought he was responding to months of winter nagging in hopes of keeping the house warm. I then moved to the idea that he might be getting amusement out of locking the cats in there as they tend to do something they shouldn’t do and Shane has realized statements involving the word “poop” are intrinsically funny. During a night of scary Doctor Who, I decided to ask him why he was about to shut the door. He pointed to a corner of the porch. There they were, on top of a bookshelf. “The hamsters?” I asked. “Uh-huh,” said Shane, not wanting to look at them any longer than they had to. A trio of singing hamsters which were part of a novelty craze about a decade ago. These foot-tall vertical rodents would dance and sing “chipmunk-style” to a popular tune. They were also costumed to fit the song. The Tom Jones hamster has the big early 70’s afro as he gyrates to “It’s Not Unusual.” The Brady Bunch hamster has the big early 70’s Greg Brady/Barry Williams afro as it sings the theme to its TV show namesake (why they didn’t choose “It’s a Sunshine Day” is a mystery). The “Kung Fu Fighting” hamster is unfortunately not dressed like Carl Douglas but like the original Karate Kid – except there’s a nunchuck in place of a hand. Admittedly, the last hamster is creepy but the others epitomize the good, clean fun of the 1970’s. What’s wrong with that?

As a parent and horror aficionado, I could sympathize with Shane’s fear. I used to live in a house next to a small forest where a windy night could cause me to watch the clock until I was no longer capable. I often hid underneath covers to protect myself against all the undefinable noises which bashed against my bedroom window. To my best recollection, I never had a good night’s sleep until I moved. No parent wants their child to be scared - except for strangers, moving vehicles, academic failure and the government. Parents want to protect their children from everything and anything, be it real or imaginary. To a certain extent, the real stuff is easier. You can explain it, be the comforting hero and hug your little one to make it better. The unreal stuff, that’s a bit tougher. The fear may not be real to you but it is as real to them as the sun. Dismissing it risks a loss of faith in you, acknowledging it risks perpetuating it into therapy. There is no correct choice, only a decision based on how we view ourselves and reality itself.

I chose to grab a grocery bag and imprison the singing hamsters in a forcefield lying deep in an upstairs closet. As I locked the hamsters into the negative zone, I knew wouldn’t always be able to take away my children’s fears but I resolved to do it as long as I possibly could. Throughout our lives, we will be forced to deal with fears and struggles which will not go away. They keep us up, clench our stomachs and question our beliefs. Children shouldn’t have to do this. Although pain and sadness is inevitable, it is how we handle it which will in turn mold their reactions as well. When my son wants to be everybody’s friend, saying “Hi” to everyone on the street, I feel blessed to have a child with such a giving heart. Eventually, this precious heart will get hurt, and I will do my best to take that hurt away. I will not always be able to help, but I’ll do my best to try.

When the time comes that Daddy can’t imprison the evil, singing hamsters of life and the fears of the imagination become the fears of reality, the one thing I can still do is not destroy the belief that I love him. Whether my children will always believe it or not, I have been and always will be their friend. There are always scary forests and hamsters lurking for each and every one of us. Our choice as adults, even in the face of fears and doubts which are far too real, is to protect and love our children to the greatest extent possible. Children are a gift from God. Our problems should never become theirs. We may not be able to sustain their faith, but in no form should we ever try to break it. To do so would resemble dropping a rock into a pond and watching it shatter.

The banishment of the hamsters didn’t work. Shane still closes the porch door. He doesn’t want to elaborate on the whys and wherefores. Whatever it is, it’s still there. He still climbs in our bed and sleeps well, making it something not defeated but postponed. Shane woke up today with a smile on his face and a desire to cuddle with Daddy. We shared giggles and warmth on a June morning. My three year old, Romana, had been up far too early and wanted to pounce on her own adventure of camping, castles and monsters (Shane is usually the monster). For this one day, I protected him from the Romanamonster. As we laughed into each others eyes, I knew the day will come when the hugs, cuddling and protecting will end. The smile, the love, the pieces of the soul which last forever, I hold to myself like a diamond.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lindsay Lohan: The Future of American Politics

On Monday, May 25, Lindsay Lohan returned to court for missing some dumb probation hearing because she was too wasted to know what day, month or year it was – or so the news analysts would have you believe. Two respected bastions of journalistic integrity, CNN and MSNBC preempted coverage of the BP Gulf oil spill and capitol hill corruption to carry Lindsay’s court appearance live followed by several pundits showing their four years pursuing a mass com degree was spent attempting to be as much like Ms Lohan as possible. To Lindsay’s credit, she put on best performance of her young career, appearing dressed-down, disinterested and slightly confused. Was she being herself (as the geniuses who spend most of their time talking politics poorly think) or just being who the public perceives her to be: a good girl gone bad. However, in just twenty minutes, Lindsay Lohan managed to regain her rightful spot as headliner of the 24 – hour news channels. Thank God!

Two years ago, the big three cable news outlets, CNN, FOX and MSNBC abandoned their nonstop coverage of the trials and tribulations of celebrity screw-ups Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan in favor of covering political screw-ups Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Many people (yours truly included) hailed this switch as a step forward for news coverage. Those who for years were howling “That’s not news!” finally saw their wish granted. News should be about serious politics, they argued, not distractions coming from the land of Hollywierd. After two years of Capital Hill hyjinks, I can’t for the life of me decide which is worse.

On the surface, it is easy to label the uber-wealthy inhabitants of Hollywood as spoiled, over-paid and under-talented. They epitomize a culture of decadence, self-entitlement with a splash of superficial social awareness. After two years of continuous news coverage it is also easy to label the uber-wealthy inhabitants of Washington D.C. as spoiled, over-paid and under-talented. The career politicians also epitomize a culture of decadence, self-entitlement with a splash of superficial social awareness. There is really no difference between the two cultures except the Hollywood folks get to wear better clothes. I’m willing to wager Britney Spears cares just as much about the environment as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, if not more so. Paris Hilton empathizes with the average American as much as Sarah Palin does – except that Ms. Hilton might attend the average fundraiser once or twice a year. Ms. Palin, however, never attended a fundraiser where the primary beneficiary was not herself. As for the aloof, disinterested Lindsay Lohan – she might as well be the damn President.

The cable news networks’ political coverage (whether they admit it or not) has exposed the American political system as nothing but a bunch of untalented actors desperate to do whatever they can to stay on stage. One could replace Gloria Swanson with Senator John McCain in “Sunset Boulevard” and it would still be the same film. It could also be proposed that Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel would be better pundits than ninety percent of the talking heads babbling on TV right now. American politics, like many Hollywood blockbusters, is all about how bombastic you can be and how many special effects you can pile on before the audience realizes they are watching a gigantic, over-expensive mess.

Submitted for your approval, a United States government ran by Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Except for the obvious fact that they are better looking than the hottest member of Congress (is there even such a being?), how could our country do any worse than the system we have now? The majority of Americans clearly despises the individuals in charge, why not elect people that the public has the foreknowledge they are universally clueless? It’s kinda better if you think about it. A pre-emptive electoral strike, if you will. Take my choice for President of the United States of America, Lindsay Lohan. Initial ability squandered prematurely: check. A string of mishandled public appearances: check. Addictions admitted and rehab attended: check. Refusal to talk to the press unless a laundry list of stipulations are met: check. Everyone who has hired you wants to fire you before you can do your job: check. With this extensive vetting completed, it seems the only logical choice for leader of the free world is the star of remakes of “Freaky Friday” and “The Love Bug.”

I’m glad Lindsay Lohan’s back. Even on her worse day, she’s tanner than John Boehner and ten times as charismatic as Eric Cantor. She needs to get back in court as soon as possible to deliver another fantastic performance. She’s found her voice. The worst is behind her. The American public is ready for a new direction, an individual who understands issues the readers of People magazine care about. Unlike those career politicians the “lamestream” media supports, Lindsay Lohan represents what all Americans aspire and wish to become. She is on TV. She wants to be somebody. She has flaws and doesn’t care who judges her. Let’s show our support for her. Let’s take our country back. Let’s vote for Lindsay! Let Lindsay win!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

This Joke Isn't Funny Anymore!

Congresswoman: Well, Mr. Dallas... we've heard your smut masquerading as songs... and we've heard how teen prostitution pregnancy, drug use, cults, runaways, suicide and poor hygiene are sweeping this nation. We thought you might like to share with the committee any particular causes you might see for those latter problems...

Steve Dallas: I dunno. Maybe the proliferation of narrow, suffocating zealotry masquerading as parenting in this country.

-From Bloom County

My initial seduction into the world of politics came through Bloom County. Created by Berkeley Breathed, the daily comic strip lambasted the Reagan and Bush era from 1980 to 1989. Unlike Garry Trudeau’s dry, New Yorker-esque Doonesbury, Bloom County was blatantly immature and juvenile, referencing conservative figures like Edwin Meese and Casper Weinberger during plotlines involving Opus the penguin and Bill the Cat. Breathed mocked the conservative eighties in a way that made one realize how moronic the government as a whole really was.

The first storyline I remember was one of Bloom County’s most popular, the “Billy and the Boingers” saga in which part-time lawyer, full-time womanizing cad Steve Dallas decided the easiest path to fame and fortune was by managing a hair band featuring Opus, Bill and Hodgepodge the rabbit. Satirizing both the heavy metal genre and the PMRC hearings which dogged it, Breathed’s over the top style made comedic mincemeat out of all subjects involved. During the course of the 1980’s, the Bloom County universe would see Bill the Cat run for president twice, spy for the Russians, start a fundamentalist sect (Fundamentally Oral Bill) and have Donald Trump’s brain implanted in his head. Throughout these shenanigans, Breathed never lost sight of Bill’s initial premise: a blatant Garfield rip-off devoid of any personality or likeability, except that of a chain-smoking drug addict. Naturally, Bill the Cat became one of the strip’s most popular characters, even being sold as a stuffed toy with warnings it would fall apart if the buyer even touched it.

I followed Bloom County avidly until its end in August 1989. Much like his contemporary, Calvin and Hobbes’ Bill Waterson, Berkeley Breathed chose to end his strip before it fell into self-parody. Without Bloom County, I never would have become interested in politics, especially the buffoonery and corruptness contained therein. Throughout the 1990’s, it seemed that type of biting political humor was missing in America, despite several brilliant Saturday Night Live sketches. The day to day savaging of capital hill was missing until 1996, when Lizz Winstead’s “The Daily Show” premiered on Comedy Central. Initially hosted by Craig Kilborn and ultimately taken to national prominence by Jon Stewart, The Daily Show lampooned national politics and the cable media’s coverage of whatever they believed was news.

For those with a short memory, much of cable news consisted of nonstop coverage of trials and the continual exploits of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan and Michael Jackson. The Daily Show, along with select other pontificating pundits, would point out this fallacy of news. Celebrity news coverage began to dissipate with the debacle that was 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, with Stewart continually savaging the George W. Bush’s administration’s inept response along with cable media’s inept reporting. Stewart was always quick to point out that there were two wars going on as well, something cable news has done their best to ignore. However, it wasn’t until 2008’s presidential election coverage that celebrity stupidity was put on the back on the shelf. Stewart and his Daily Show staff now focused completely on political coverage and there was much funny to be had that fall, particularly at the expense of the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin.

During this period, the Daily Show garnered more attention and viewers than it ever had. Cable news began to notice this and began to feature more sarcastic pundits as opposed to hard analysts. Many of these new contributors had questionable credentials besides being young and photogenic. It seemed anyone could be labeled as a Republican or Democratic analyst as long as they possessed a sarcastic mouth and a pretty face. Ironically, this shift resulted in more credibility for Stewart, Steven Colbert, Samantha Bee and the rest of their staff. After all, at least they were consistent. As 2008 ended, the Daily Show had a big cry as their biggest punching bag, the Bush Administration, would no longer be there to kick around. In half-hearted seriousness, they questioned their ability to be funny in the Barack Obama era.

As Obama assumed the Presidency in 2009, cable news realized they could keep, if not gain, viewership by continuous political coverage. The Daily Show (and to a lesser extent, The Colbert Report)’s staff took advantage of the news anchors and pundits who were obviously more comfortable covering celebrities. There was a reason CNN covered the death of Michael Jackson for two months: it gave them a bigger audience. 2009 and 2010 have seen Jon Stewart not only rip on politicians, but on many of cable media’s staff. Never was this more evident than Stewart’s savage destruction of CNBC’s Jim Cramer, who was forced to defend his “Mad Money” show after defending the solubility of Bear Stearns just days before it collapsed. After this interview, Stewart’s daily insults of politicians and news media became news itself, especially of internet sites The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. Despite Stewart’s mockery of this aggregated coverage (usually Stewart lays into this or savages that), something started to disappear from the comedy which has garnered so many Emmys.

Currently, The Daily Show spends much of its time still making fun of cable news anchors and their guests. With the exception of Fox News, most of these shows average one million viewers or less. One wonders what the point is in spending ten minutes insulting the likes of CNN’s John Roberts and Rick Sanchez or MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer. It seems Stewart and his staff wants another Jim Cramer: someone they can insult and then get to appear on the show. The problem is that these talking heads are just following talking points given to them from their producers. Cramer had his own show and his own brand that marketed itself as sound financial advice. Cable news anchors don’t market anything except a pretty face and a four-year degree. Why invest the time in insulting people who don’t claim to be experts at anything?

For a while, The Daily Show attempted to show an even hand in the Obama era. Nevertheless, as 2009 wore on, there were much easier targets such as Fox News and the Republican Party in general. As Fox News ramped up their opposition to the Obama administration, their ratings increased with the rhetoric. The more one-sided the network became, the higher the audience became. For the last six months or so, The Daily Show has gained most of its material from Fox News and the Republicans who appear on it (thank you Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann). As funny as Jon Stewart’s zingers may be, his continual assault on Fox is starting to resemble a broken record. If one were to judge popularity based on insults, Fox and Friends must be bigger than American Idol. Yet the Daily Show had yet to find another “Jim Cramer moment” until last week when Stewart went on a tirade against O’Reilly Factor pundit Bernard Goldberg, resulting in the now famous line: “Fox News – go f**k yourselves.” Much to the joy of The Daily Show staff, Goldberg chose to respond, which has resulted in several more attempts at the first profanic response. This also gave The Daily Show even more internet aggregation that they supposedly mock. But one wonders with such blatant insults laid on the table, where do you go from here?

The opening strip in the first Bloom County anthology, “Loose Tails”, ended with student Milo Bloom exclaiming “REAGAN SUCKS!” This was a joke within a joke, meaning political comedy should never be either so dry as to be only understood by those with a stuffy New England masters degree like Doonesbury nor be so mindless as to be understood by those who love profanity for profanity’s sake. In entering a profane discourse with Fox News, The Daily Show has shown they would rather appear constantly on the home page of the Huffington Post than engage in comedic politics. Constantly swearing at Fox News does not help the viewer in seeing the funny side, but rather how dirty everything that calls itself politics has become. Berkeley Breathed chose to end Bloom County before it became what he despised: a cultural institution. By choosing to become a profanity-laced counter to the right wing culture, The Daily Show is no longer an alternative to the mainstream news, but a willing participant. Like tennis players in an unending match, the ball will be hit back and forth until the monotony forces the audience to change the channel. For me, it is back to that never-ending joy of the internet. I’ve yet to get that stuffed Bill the Cat. When I do, I’ll have Bill under my arm by the couch and tune in to The Daily Show. As Jon Stewart engages one of his wide-mouthed laughs, I’ll point him to the screen and shout: OOP ACK!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Thoughts From a Part-Time Insomniac

There are few lights at two-thirty in the morning. From my bed, I see shines from streetlights covered up by the window shade trying to breathe the dim-lit fight against the dark. Mostly I see the light flowing from the right diagonal corner of the living room. A monkey at the base with no shade to cover, it points into my eyes when I can’t sleep. The monkey-light is the first I see as I crack my back trying to find a comfortable spot on the bed. As I move around, not awake but far enough from sleep, my eyes focus on the dimly lit dining room light. Somehow, the ancient chandelier finds more effort in the night than in musters during dinnertime. Between the monkey light and the glass candelabra lies enough lumination to keep a man’s eyes open.

There’s never enough room as I stretch my legs and find my eyes looking through the bedroom corridor. A little boy lies at my feet; a little girl curled up upside-down in the center, a cat in an open corner and my wife far away enough that I can’t put my arm around her or lay my head upon her chest. I know she’s there as I hear her snore. Sometimes that is enough. I crunch my head against a pillow or four and look out into the light. The records nailed to the dining room wall provide a little night music. “Chewy Chewy” by the Ohio Express, “New Juke Box Hits” by Chuck Berry and “Doctorin’ the TARDIS” by the Time Lords. Their songs don’t play for me as much as remind me of where I was and where I am now. An album is a collection of songs. The bed is a collection of people. As I spin around trying to crack my back into the spot which will provide slumber, it’s hard not to notice the past nailed to the wall contrasted with the future asleep on the bed.

The monkey-light illuminates a picture of the late Bob Clampett and his animated subjects Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Beany and Cecil and the enigmatic Do-Do. A monument to years of Saturday morning cartoons with nothing to do but stare at the TV after breakfast. It didn’t end there. Before the bus would pick me up on school days, there was a 6 AM wake-up of Looney Tunes followed by Deputy Dowg. The picture is a frame of my past, of a time when joy was just a click away and alarm clocks weren’t necessary. It was fun just getting up for the adventure.

On the adjacent wall shined by the monkey-light is a poster for the film “Swingers.” Vince Vaughn, young and cocky, toasts the joy of being on your own, in your twenties, careless and not generally giving a damn. It is my wife’s poster but it might as well be mine. In terms of thought, we were both there. The party is awesome, sexy and glamorous. We wanted to be there in the clubs, in the thick of the crowd. To dance and jump without a care and babble about whatsonothings with a friend or someone you don’t even know. The joy was in the adventure. To find someone who toasts your drink and dances beside you. The adventure is fun but it’s a lot like the Temple of Doom. It’s a great ride but in the end, you just want to get off.

As I try to find a place for myself in a bed filled with people and a cat, I saw myself in those pictures. Why should I be so eager to get to sleep and get out of this? Is there any reason I should get up, turn on the TV and watch the Fugitive for the thirtieth time? Is there anything to gain from sitting up and becoming frustrated at the lack of sleep? I look around my small part of the bed and I realized all the calm I needed was already there. Getting up to replenish a sippy-cup or grabbing the extra blanket isn’t as fun as a cocktail or a cartoon but it is far more fulfilling. There’s only so much time we have in the world. I found it best to enjoy the adventure, even if the mission just requires finding a lost teddy bear.

The crowded bed only lasts so long. Time will pass and the passengers will ride to their own destination. The cuddling little boy and girl might make that choice or the decision could be made for them. Either way, the time is fleeting. As I get kicked awake and take a sip of a super-sugary juice, I’m always aware it could be the last. The last kick in the middle of the night, the last sippy-cup, the last nightmare needing a hug. Eventually, the crowd of five will shrink. My son will drift off into a room filled with Legos, games and the dreams a young boy has. My daughter will take her plastic cooking and laughter into a room of her own. The cat? Who knows where he will choose to lay his lazy head. The bed of five will soon become two. The two left, still holding on to each other and all they have been through, will eventually be one. Such is the way of things, the circle of life, the universe and whatnot.

As I lay awake, I don’t question insomnia for one second. It’s a blessing to see the light throughout the night. I get kicked in the middle of a dream by a child just wanting to know I’m there. I think about a glass of water and the bathroom enough to get up and make it so. When I make my way back, they’ve taken my spot. It would be easy to shore up on the couch and surf through AMC movies and reruns of “Roseanne.” I could fall into the bed in the kids’ room but I’m reminded it is still empty. So I hop over toys with my feet and jump into a bed with no room. Everyone is there. I scrunch up into the corner. I lay on my back even though I never sleep that way. I stretch my arm to feel my wife. She’s there, hugging into the circle, that’s all that matters. At the middle of our feet is a little boy, between us is a little girl. They want our love. Between us, we’ll give all we can.

I guess there comes a time where we have to separate this utopia. As I clench my back and pull a blanket up, I ask myself why does this happen? Why do we force our children into a bedroom of loneliness? It has occurred to me that when I was as a child, my times spent lonely in a room were filled with thoughts of wanting someone special to share it with. Granted, my room was next to trees that scratched against the windows and flashed their menace during a thunderstorm. But when my daughter gets scared of the unknown noises and cries for a hug, who am I to deny her? Who am I to deny me of being scared for her? As we grow up, we find our own way. There’s no need to force it, it just sort of happens. She’ll go up into her room filled with pixie dust and neon magic. My son will wage battle in a fort of Legos, swords and knights without the need of his father to protect him. These adventures are going to happen. They don’t need to start now, this second. You guys are still here as I toss and turn. I still have one more night with my babies.

I crack my back and stare into the living room light again. It shines on a room that is part me, my wife and my kids. Bugs Bunny, Vince Vaughn, Little People, castles and princesses. I’m happy to be here, in the middle of the night. I want to be awake the next night just to see it all again. I wiggle myself to the side of the bed facing the wall. I draw a door with a smiley face with my index finger, put my head on a warm pillow, close my eyes to the heavens and I’m gone.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?

“It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled.” - Led Zeppelin

“I’m in love…with that song.” - The Replacements

In the grand scheme of all things rock and roll, it isn’t the recollection of the first time you hear a great song that sticks with you, rather the memories seem to lie in the instances when a particular song hits you in the gut. Sometimes the experience is a first-round knockout: a tune heard which instantly is recognized as a classic of its form. For me, the song I’ve heard this year that have fallen under that category are “Daddy’s Gone” by Glasvegas and “The ’59 Sound” by the Gaslight Anthem. I have to go back to 2007’s “Stuck Between Stations” and “Massive Nights” by the Hold Steady to find similar occurrences. Going back farther, it’s harder find other music made this decade which gets the heart pumping from the first note onwards. This is not to say there hasn’t been great rock and roll this decade, but for a good chunk of the 2000’s it was pretty hard to find. The 2000’s have been a transitional period for music, where the influences of old mediums like FM radio and MTV have become an afterthought. Much of the decade has seen the evolution from these almost extinct forms of influence to new, user-friendly ones such as streaming radio stations such as NME Radio and Pandora. MTV and FUSE have been replaced by YouTube, Facebook and MySpace as the primary means of releasing music videos. The advent of high-speed internet in the 21st Century has allowed music fans to hear more artists in a year than were ever played on Casey Kasem’s American Top Forty. But we have lost something intrinsic to rock and roll in gaining such freedom. Music has lost its communal influence; its ability to reach millions of listeners just by turning a little left of the dial.

Most people don’t remember the first time they heard Don MacLean’s epic salute to the history of rock and roll, “American Pie,” but there are many who can remember being around a group of good friends, cruising the streets of their hometown on a direct destination to nowhere and attempting to sing all the lyrics. It was rare all MacLean’s words would be recalled accurately, but trying to remember the verses was just a happy excuse to get to the chorus and the final big shout-out:

“Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry
Them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye
And singing this will be the day that I die.”

It wasn’t just the classic song that made this experience so memorable to so many. It was the spontaneity of hearing the song on the radio that caused such unrepentant joy. One could usually hear “American Pie” sometime after 9 P.M. wherever you were on a Friday or Saturday. If one cues it up on CD or an MP3 player, the element of surprise and elation is taken away. You know it’s coming like a karaoke song at a bar. It’s just not the same.

The role of a DJ was to know their audience and try to give them the best musical experience they could, combining old favorites, new hits, a few obscure ditties plus a dash of listener requests. They made concerts in their mind, understanding just when to bring the tempo down to a slow song like Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and when to raise it up with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Devil With a Blue Dress On.” George Lucas captured the old-school experience in his classic film “American Graffiti” with its unprecedented use of music to frame a film but also the incorporation of the mythic DJ, Wolfman Jack. Richard Linkletter expanded Lucas’ concept in his film “Dazed and Confused,” which celebrated mid-70’s rock in the same fashion Lucas did for 1950’s rock and roll. Linkletter used the influence of MTV to make some of “Dazed and Confused’s” scenes resemble music videos. Both films encompassed what it was like to be young or young at heart. The primary difference between the aforementioned films and films such as “Saturday Night Fever” is the song selection was used in hindsight, not in the presence of the moment. A good DJ doesn’t play “top forty.” They play to an audience like a rock star.

Understanding the mood of the listener is very similar to a rock band when they perform live. There was a depth of knowledge, mood and setting DJ’s possessed which rivals that of classical music conductors. Anyone who grew up listening to radio in the late 1980’s couldn’t escape Guns N’ Roses” classic hit “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” The challenge posed to the DJ was when to play it. How long do you wait, how many requests do you put up with before you acquiesce? A great DJ knows just how long to pull that string before they release it. At the height of a song’s peak, a DJ could cause an avalanche on the dance floor, a house party or a crammed 1977 Monte Carlo. They held your emotions and your night in their hands. Song selection could get you into that first awkward dance at high school, high-fives and shouts with your best buds or make you feel alone in a crowd of hundreds. These people performed concerts without a band, all they had was an innate feeling of music.

A DJ could play “Beth” by KISS and somehow you thought they played it for you and your friends, sitting in a garage lamenting various romantic entanglements. They could play “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC and bring forth dancing libation in a crowded basement. Whatever the song would be, the result would be a forthcoming of emotion. A spin of “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family would result in a gigantic circle of revelry, smiles and dancing. These moments brought people together, generated smiles, goodwill and fellowship. It didn’t matter if anyone could actually sing or even knew the words. What was important was absorbing yourself into the moment, the happy bliss of friends and the knowledge they felt the same thing at the same time. At its peak rock and roll could make friends from strangers, love from infatuation and marriage from courtship. Music could conquer anything for a moment or a minute. It takes a human soul to transform it into real emotion. Rock and roll was the drug. The DJ was the dealer.

It is hard to pinpoint an exact moment when the influence of the DJ began to wane although in most certainly happened in the 1990’s. In the late 80’s four genres began to permeate the listening public in a way that confounded the conventional wisdom of most industry insiders. Both were gaining steady followings throughout the decade but mainstream airplay eluded the majority of the artists. The alternative/modern rock/punk/grunge/whatever genre had rabid followings in college and urban areas. Artists such as the Cure, Husker Du and the Replacements released great record after great record during this period, gaining much critical praise but little in success in terms of airplay or sales. Speed metal or “thrash” bands Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer began to draw massive crowds due to phenomenal musicianship and fan rapport. Country music artists George Strait, Randy Travis and Reba MacEntyre began to see their audience expand by incorporating a pop music feel to many of their songs. Run-DMC saw unexpected chart success with a novelty mash-up of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”

“Hair bands” such as Motley Crue achieved massive chart success with party anthems like “Girls Girls Girls” and power-ballads such as the top ten hit “Home Sweet Home.” The full-lengths albums, however, left much to be desired in terms of overall quality. It was quite common for many people to fast forward or rewind the cassettes of the Crue, Poison and their peers to play the two or three listenable songs. This procedure resulted in the infamous “tape explosions” where the tape would become loose as the rewind, fast forward and play buttons were beat on like arcade games. This malfunction was not too detrimental if it occurred in a boom box or home stereo but when a cassette tape exploded in a car stereo, a mess ensued that not only took hours to remove but also severely damaged the cassette tape. Digging a tape out of a car stereo tended to take the fun out of an evening of anticipated fun to say the least. This continual source of frustration combined with sub-standard album quality slowly resulted in music fans looking elsewhere for their rock and roll.

The “hair bands” and other major pop stars of the eighties such as Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen began to take more time between album releases, resulting in six-plus singles from two-year old records. The DJ’s were told to play each and every release, along with the older singles. This philosophy resulted in audio overkill. People became sick of hearing the same artists and the same videos played continually for years. This concept of “milking the record” began to interfere with a radio station’s attempt to break new artists. Slowly, music fans began to turn the dial a little to the left in search of something new. In that process, they found stations playing music which was new and exciting. Metallica rocked harder and faster than Motley Crue. REM was more thoughtful and retrospective than Springsteen. Alabama made better dance songs than the “King of Pop.” As these artists began to become more renown to a larger audience, mainstream radio retreated into the comfort of “safe” artists such as Vanilla Ice, Warrant and Paula Abdul. The radio spectrum was about to splinter, all it needed was another brick from the wall.

“1989 – the number – another summer. Sound of the funky drummer.” These words brought forth Public Enemy. Their song “Fight the Power,” used in the classic Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing” began to gain airplay on MTV. One of the greatest protest songs ever written, “Fight the Power” capitalized on urban disaffection. “Now, the world is gone, I’m just one. Oh, God help me,” the final verse on Metallica’s epic anthem of disaffection, “One” resulted in the band’s first commercial hit without compromising any of their speed-metal credentials. “Stand in the place that you live. Now face west. Think about direction – wonder why you haven’t now” was REM’s version of a dance song. At the same time, the “new” sound of country music had taken hold, driving such stalwarts such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers into radio oblivion. In their place was a music that sounded kinda country, kinda rock and a lot like the Eagles and Poco. Leading the charge was Garth Brooks, an unabashed showman whose concerts resembled heavy metal bombast more than a Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry. When these diverse acts began to take hold on the radio and in record stores, the synth-based pop of the eighties went from life support to dead air. This ascension was culminated three years later, when Brooks, REM, and newcomers Nirvana all had number one albums. In a few more years, rap and hip-hop records would also become top ten mainstays. The invention of Soundscan, a computer program which gave actual sales results as opposed to estimates, was a major factor in this culture shift. A change was overdue to come and most likely would have occurred without Soundscan. However, technological advances quicken such changes, often with unforeseen results.

Initially, most people embrace the new sounds coming from the radio and music television stations. Record labels were left reeling about what artists they should sign or promote. Sales fell so sharply for the hair bands that many of them were left bankrupt, forced to play the same dingy bars where they began their careers. In the early 90s, one could tune into the top forty station and hear a wide range of genres that may never be experienced again. Like any rising styles of music, the initial output was fantastic. It was common to be at a party and jam out to Brooks and Dunn, the Breeders and Dr. Dre. It was a fantastic time to love music but like most cultural movements, it was short lived. Nirvana imploded with the death of Kurt Cobain, Garth Brooks grew tired of recording and semi-retired and rappers 2Pac and Notorious BIG were murdered. By 1995, record labels had begun signing every act they could find to big (and mostly unwarranted) contracts. Few of them had the impact of their predecessors. Despite their bravado, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw were not Garth Brooks. Green Day and the Offspring had all the volume but none of the danger inherent with Nirvana. The exception was hip/hop’s Eminem who managed to sell millions of records because he is inarguably one of the greatest artists of the modern era.

Radio was also transitioning in the 90s. Gigantic corporations Clear Channel and ABC/Disney began to scoop up radio stations like a kid at a baseball card show. To them, it seemed if they did not know what listeners wanted; it was more profitable to give music fans as little alternative as possible. The days of independent radio were numbered. People began to choose sides once again. Either all country, all rock or top forty pop (which was basically hip/hop) stations dominated the airwaves with a strength never seen before. The late 90s saw the biggest payola scandal since the days of Alan Freed. Granted, there was music that was legit. The technology pendulum swung again and most music fans decided it was time to quit.

Computers used to be the toy of the geeky rich kid in class. By the end of the 1990s, it started to become a staple of most households. The internet was still in its infancy, but CD burners gave music fans a better bargain than used CD stores, pawn shops or flea markets. CD burners allowed anyone with a computer to make an exact copy of a CD with little or no loss of sound. It became a common sight to see a group of friends at a record store, each with one CD to purchase, their sole intent to go home, make copies and share them with their friends. The writing (no pun intended) was on the wall. It would become much more difficult to market a poor album based on the quality of one hit single. Music fans took more chances with artists they liked if they could have a few buds buy an album of agreed taste. The record industry largely ignored this trend at the time, believing the new conglomerate radio stations would still lead the horse to water. Playlists became more homogenized due to the massive takeovers, yet this excessive promotion did not increase record sales. The meteor called the internet was about to land and radio was a listless dinosaur chewing leaves.

It seems easy to blame the arrival of widespread internet use of the record industry’s demise but the industry did themselves no favors. As the 21st century arrived, only Eminem, boy bands and country artists were still selling millions. The quality of radio music had dropped abysmally, leaving people little choice but to pursue an alternative and “fight the powers that be.” People didn’t choose to download just because it was easy, they did it because radio sucked. There was little a diverse group could agree on anymore. It is hard to believe those who bought Shania Twain CD’s also rocked out to Radiohead. The genres had retreated largely due to the lack of diversity on radio stations. Instead of a big, joyous party, there were complaints about whoever had the unfortunate position to be in charge of the music. While big radio drowned in their Kool-Aid, music lovers downloaded to their gigabyte heart’s content. Because the music was now free, people took more chances, listened to different things and passed them on. The era of being spoon-fed was over. No marketing wiz could save it. YouTube, Facebook and MySpace became the means of communicating what someone liked. Why have a request show if the song you want is just one click away and not somewhere left of the dial?

The record and radio industries responded in a fashion that’s similar to a limp animal waiting to be put out of its misery. It is common now to turn on that FM signal and hear Billy Joel on ten stations. He’s on the oldies station, the eighties station, the easy listening station and the rock station. If Joel and Elton John would cover “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” they’d cover the whole gamut. Instead of looking to the internet for inspiration, radio stations have chosen homogeny. This concept may be good for elevators on 50 story buildings and dentists’ offices, but it gives nothing but numbness to the average human. Gone are the days when you could be driving on the highway with nowhere to go, put the brakes on and say to yourself “What’s that song?”

That question is also now regulated to the internet and streaming radio. The listening public has become splintered into shards of taste. Similar yet so different there is no knowledge of the other. We listen to our own station, make our playlists and have become deaf to what else is out there. Getting what we want has given us less and less or what we need: Music that is new, different and challenging is all but gone as we spin the same record round. There is no need to absorb and tolerate anything different. It can just be deleted like a mix tape for a girl or boy that never quite understood your love.

Garth Brooks made us want to dance with “Friends in Low Places.” His melodic chime brought many of us to a moment of comradery. Whether we liked it or didn’t, if you were remotely out and about in the early 1990’s, that song was a part of your life. Maybe you sang along in a drunken stupor or were proud that you stood in the corner of the club and despised it. Either way, it brought people together. The same could be said for Nirvana, disco and right back to the Beatles. There was always something going on that could be danced to or criticized. Music was a passion. If there were bar fights over the song selection, at least people cared enough to complain or fight for their right to party. Now that Garth Brooks’ ditty is just an oldie, we either dance or chuckle when it is played. If we dance, we do so with our memories.

If we stand by the wall, it is also done with our memories. Popular music has become a reboot of the Lawrence Welk show, except there is nothing to really make fun of or rebel against. When we choose to rage against the establishment machine, are we not raging against ourselves? There was a time when we thought about these things as deeply as a nighttime infatuation. Music was love; love was music. One could not possibly exist without the other.

We could head-bang with each other, rap with each other and hold our arms together and love it all while we were in the back of a car, a basement dance floor or in the comfort of our own room. The future was a drug inhaled as we tiptoed through it. We might not have been who we wanted to be but music took every one of us to all of our fantasies. For a little while, the music on the radio synthesized itself. There weren’t just hicks, metal-heads, preps or punks. A little bit of each was inside us all. We danced to it, shouted and held each other close. We drove on the back roads looking for trouble, without really knowing what it was. We escaped on the wheels of hidden beers and a large automobile. All the while, the radio played a celebration song. When we were caught, it cried with us sad songs of wanting everything too much too soon. As we woke up, the morning voice of grace and redemption shone through those who’ve been there before. If the voices were sad, we regretted. If the voices were loud, we marched on. Regardless of circumstance, there was always a song. A radio played to top volume. Fists were pumped in the middle of the night, an arm held tight around someone while the sun rose. Music came like a breathless kiss, an invigorating injection to the vein of eternal youth.

Listen! Just for one second! Don’t you hear it? Turn the radio on. Find that elusive frequency. Get in your car; take a deep breath and drive. The second when you think you’re lost, turn the radio up, park your car and take it in. You may not know where you’re going, but your heart knows where you’ve been. Park your car and listen to the songs you know or may yet discover. Music breathes in the night, whether you’re lonely or with your one and only, the radio plays. If it does not sing for you, sing out for the jukebox of the past. It’s always there, playing those songs we sing to ourselves, making us dance to a tune from a forgotten June, Think of that song, the one making your heart skip. Take a drive with your memory into midnight. The nights you remember or the ones you wish you had. The nights when the songs played long after you went to bed. The songs you sang along to while the sun rose. Don’t you remember? Do you remember?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fixing Stupid

“Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”
- Abraham Lincoln

“I love it loud – right between the eyes.” – KISS

The most watched program on cable, the most trusted name in news is not who you think they are. Although there are maniacal blowhards, sarcastic snides and outright idiots, you can’t judge the most popular show on cable television too harshly. To do so would argue against the will of the people, which have provided this show with unmatchable ratings over the last ten years. It is fair, balanced and shows the true face of the heart of America. The show attracts millions of followers regardless of political affiliation. Thinking “The O’Reilly Factor or “Hannity” by chance? They are eclipsed everyday by the true voice of the people: Spongebob Squarepants.

This shouldn’t be a shocking revelation to anyone who does not eat, sleep and excrete political news shows. Spongebob and the WWE’s Monday Night Raw draw more viewers than any political show on cable television and has for literally the past decade. Ironically, the WWE’s wrestling viewers and those who watch Sean Hannity’s five hours of misinformation each week should have intricate knowledge of the other. Both have characters so larger than life they resemble cartoons (see Undertaker and Sarah Palin) and tend to spout out a “fountain of misinformation.” The late wrestler and commentator Gorilla Monsoon used the aforementioned adage to rip on the commentary of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who looks kind of like a blond Hannity. “Monday Night Raw” is on just once a week, while the airings of Spongebob are as numerous as all the major political shows combined.

Submitted for your examination, the cable show ratings for the week ending January 17, 2010. The week featuring the debut of Sarah Palin as a regular commentator on Fox News which is the cartoon equivalent of when Patrick Star nailed a board to his forehead Indeed, Fox News had boffo ratings for the initial Palin appearances, topped by The O’Reilly Factor’s 4.2 million viewers that Thursday. The appearance of the political Patrick was still no match for the real pink deal as reruns of Spongebob managed to net a larger audience. The argument can be made that this is just a kids show for the mentally disadvantaged but I will give Fox News the benefit of the doubt. There are legitimately intelligent people who watch and contribute on Fox. A few may even have legitimate blonde hair. Fox News does have their Charles Krautheimer and Bill Kristol. Spongebob has Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway. It’s apparent which has the bigger star power.

According to Fox News, they are “the most trusted name in news.” Their claim is not without merit, as their average prime time audience is more than CNN and MSNBC combined. However, their average audience of 3.6 million is dwarfed by the broadcast news of CBS, ABC and NBC, which average over 25 million viewers combined on a nightly basis. I take into account the argument that broadcast news is free and cable is not. But like it or not, kiddos, numbers do speak for themselves. Over 56 percent of American households pay for cable. If we were to “fairly balance” this equation, broadcast news would have an audience of approximately 13 million compared to the 3.6 million watching Fox News. That is still a statistical advantage for the “big three” of 4 to 1. Not exactly the stuff revolutions are made of. Compare this further to the total population of the United States, currently estimated at 275 million. Only 13 percent of American citizens bother to watch the news on TV at all. Apparently, 87 percent of us have something better to do like watch Spongebob or American Idol.

Many people would like to point various polls and statistics showing an imminent conservative revolution. I’m sorry, the pudding is all over my face and there is yet to be any substantive proof that could not be explained by a combination of socioeconomic factors. Think of many of Rasmussen’s polls as political equivalents of Bigfoot sightings (including the deliberate capitalization of the name “Bigfoot” as to give it more authentic credentials. They tend to be skewered, glossy and ultimately as misleading as Sasquatch. Another poll, with statistics far outside the margin of error was released by CBS News January 18th regarding Ms. Palin. In the poll, 71 percent of Americans stated they did not want Palin to run for president, including 56 percent of Republicans polled. Further, despite her massive book sales and media blitz during the last few months of 2009, Palin managed to increase her favorability rating by a whopping three percent, to 26 percent. Now that’s a star, I tell ya! It is entirely feasible Palin’s staff had similar tracking poll numbers as she signed on with Fox News as a commentator to more directly confront her timeslot enemy, Patrick Star himself.

Still not convinced this is all sham, true believers? Still planning on making incoherent signs and getting angry with a government you could have cared less about until it directly affected your personal bottom line? Well, tea-partiers and conservatives definitely got “something” in a box when the citizens of Massachusetts elected Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate, replacing the late Ted Kennedy. Brown’s election proved one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt: people are pissed at the status quo pro “no” that is Congress and are tired of candidates thinking that a political position belongs to them without any merits. Ted Kennedy’s niece, Caroline, tried to attain a U.S. Senate seat a year ago with her basic credentials being close to nothing besides her lineage. Because she is not completely moronic, she withdrew her candidacy to spare herself the forthcoming humiliation of not being chosen. Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts Senate candidate who would be defeated by Scott Brown, had none of Caroline Kennedy’s foresight. All statistical analysis, points to an individual who really believed she deserved the senate seat and did not have to earn it. Most telling is the ratio of campaign rallies. Scott Brown held sixty-six rallies compared to Coakley’s nineteen, a ratio of over four to one. Add to that several insipid comments directed at Boston Red Sox great (and Republican) Curt Schilling, Coakley’s campaign was literally begging for a political thrashing. It should come as no surprise to anyone that she lost. Had she ran a campaign remotely as enthusiastic as Scott Brown – well, who knows? People are mad and when they are mad, they are quite unpredictable.

It is with these overt feelings in mind, along with continual antipathy toward the government that I believe the state of our historic union can only be summarized with one word: dysfunctional. As more Americans have been given the ability to unlimited information about how our government works - or more specifically how it does not work at all – many citizens have become polarized in their convictions in a fashion similar to that of our popular culture. Either you like “Spongebob Squarepants” or you hate it. Football fans wanted Brett Farve to succeed or fail. There seems to be no middle ground except for the fact that we all look like fools with our pants down there. This is especially true of our government and those “too big to fail banks.” If anger towards Democrats leads to another Republican government, there is no evidence that any specific ideals or practices will change. It seems like everyone wants to save their job at any cost, no matter if that job is to serve the will of the people. This political hubris is not only against what America stands for, it’s downright stupid.

The only feasible means of ridding our country of the aforementioned dysfunction is to ignore the only political idiom Democrats and Republicans agree on: A third party vote is a wasted vote. Trust me, this phrase will be heard constantly throughout this year and always without merit. Watch as both major party candidates for whatever position – be it senator, congressman or governor – use their influence to block third party candidates from debates. Anyone who is truly angry should utilize this anger against to vote against the individuals who undermine our democracy. So what if we elect people to office who are outsiders, lack political experience or the savvy to blend in with the beltway. These decisions, more than any others, are up to us. If your elected officials can’t make a decent crabby patty, then fire them. But don’t replace Spongebob with Squidward or Patrick Star. The results will remain the same. As far as I know, Scrappy-Doo isn’t doing anything these days. Beast Boy is currently unemployed as are all three Powerpuff Girls. As the political ads start flying faster than speeding bullet this fall, remember that true change can only happen if we replace the cartoon characters that currently occupy our political airwaves.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why Avatar is Making Americans Stupid

For the record, I like Avatar. I thoroughly enjoyed James Cameron’s latest opus throughout its two and a half hours of visual onslaught. Avatar is a beautiful, bright, shiny and relatively mindless film, similar to many other things Americans love. It has turned out to be one of those “event” movies which draw people to theaters who do not normally go, similar to Cameron’s previous effort Titanic and another modern classic, Home Alone. Not admitting to paying for Home Alone? You lie! As a society, we tend to jump on the proverbial bandwagon when a story gets so absolutely huge it is nearly impossible to avoid conversing about it. We do this with the Super Bowl, American Idol, Snuggies and especially politics. It’s interesting as long as it’s interesting to everyone else. When everyone else has officially thrown the subject into “lameness” (see Home Alone, Barack Obama), the follower does the same. In the case of Avatar, however, succumbing to the hype might be more dangerous than Dick Cheney stuck on Pandora.

The main appeal of Avatar lies in the groundbreaking cinematography and 3-D camerawork, the likes of which has never been seen in the history of cinema. The last year or so has seen several films test the 3-D waters in anticipation of Cameron’s movie. A remake of My Bloody Valentine, the Neil Gaiman scripted Coraline, Monsters Vs Aliens and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs showed the appeal - and lack thereof – 3D technology presents. Coraline and “Meatballs” did well in theaters showing the traditional, 2-D versions as well as the enhanced product. “Valentine” was strictly and exercise in scaring in 3-D and it achieved its modest expectations. Monsters Vs Aliens was predicted to be one of the biggest blockbusters of 2009, yet failed to yield big numbers. “Monsters” was the first film of the modern 3-D era to have been filmed with the sole intent of selling the 3-D version. The film featured many scenes designed with the idea that audiences love STUFF FLYING IN THEIR FACE VERY FAST. It did not occur to the producers audiences, even children, might value plot in an era of Pixar masterpieces. Instead, MORE STUFF FLYING EVEN FASTER IN A MORE MONOTONOUS WAY THAN THE FIRST TIME. Repeat. Repeat. END OF FILM. Interestingly, DreamWorks Studio did not hype the DVD release of “Monsters” as much as one would expect from a big budget animated film. Perhaps the upcoming 3-D Shrek movie in 2010 foretells more than the company would care to let on.

The 3-D technology in Avatar is far superior than any used in the aforementioned films. Unlike DreamWorks, Cameron knew the film had to stand on its own from a directorial and traditional 2-D viewpoint. There is little argument left as to if he succeeded. Avatar will gross more than a billion dollars, enough cash to liberate oppressed civilizations in the real world. Cameron also spent the last ten years or so developing an executing the project. He had total control over the film and chose to stake his career on Avatar’s success or failure. Avatar’s triumph, commercially and critically, has thrown the entertainment media into a 3-D frenzy. But has Avatar’s success doomed not only the film industry but also the economic recovery of America?

The admission price to the 3-D Avatar at my local movie house was thirteen bucks, a five-dollar increase from the normal eight-dollar charge. My Adam Koeppe simple math shows a 39 percent extra dip into the pocketbook to see the film in glorious 3-D. I don’t know about you boys and girls, but that’s a hefty price jack where I come from. For a family of four that’s twenty extra bucks. At least the popcorn didn’t come with 3-D salt and butter. Although worth it, the Avatar experience is a spendy one for many Americans. The fallout from Avatar’s success has shown a public hungry for more. ESPN has recently announced they will produce a 3-D sports channel which will show the 2010 World Cup. The media salivates.

As the public celebrates the upcoming development of 3-D television, nobody has bothered to ask the question: What will 3-D soccer look like? Will it enhance the experience so much that the channel is worth subscribing to (believe me, true believers, they’re gonna charge) and also purchasing one of the handful of ginormous TV’s capable of broadcasting said soccer games? Currently, the general opinion of the public is yes. Because everything is going to look as cool as Avatar. This general euphoria is convincing many TV manufacturers to furiously work of a way to present 3-D images without having to don those stylish shades. Without a doubt, they will succeed. The potential of selling millions of TV’s to a public that has recently forked over a few paychecks for HD widescreens is far too tempting to resist. Efforts are underway to remake classic films such as Star Wars to fit the format. As if buying the Star Wars films on VHS, remastered on VHS, extended on VHS, on DVD unextended, DVD extended, and Blu-Ray unextended and extended. That’s not even accounting for how many times people saw them in the movie theater. When my Adam Koeppe simple math adds this up, that’s more than 300 bucks spent on the same bloody films! Yet many are hungry for more. Is the 3-D Star Wars going to have Luke’s hand fly in my face when Darth Vader whacks it off? Will it give me the feeling of AT-AT’s stomping on to my sofa? Will the Cantina scene give me the feeling of an intergalactic dance party right in my own house? Answer I will, young consumers. No.

A 3-D reimagining (or whatever you want to call it) of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or the Matrix will just give you a visual experience similar to that of the old Viewmaster discs: a super-position of one image in front of the other. That’s it. The films were made with a 2-D wall. I’m sure the geniuses in charge will try to make the jump into hyperspace more trippy but is that worth the purchase of an entire new entertainment system? A few thousand bucks to see a few enhanced segments? The current consensus is yes. We want to see STAR WARS AVATAR! LORD OF THE RINGS AVATAR! MATRIX AVATAR! SAW AVATAR! HANGOVER AVATAR! HAROLD AND KUMAR AVATAR! Americans have always been in love with possibility more than reality and having as opposed to having not. There is little evidence suggesting the 3-D craze will be any different.

My magic crystal dodgeball stares into the future and sees a few unfortunate blows to the financial groin. Many Americans will go into super-nasty credit card debt to become a super-cool 3-D household. This type of TV upgrade is not cheap and there are very few who can honestly afford it, considering they are still paying off their 60-inch plasmas. Yet millions will buy, unfortunately proving our society has learned absolutely nothing about financial restraint in the face of economic hardship. Laid off from a secure job? WHO CARES? 3-D! Retirement eradicated by Wall Street? WHO CARES? 3-D!! Your children’s college education? 3-D! 3-D!! Over the top, blowhard attitudes are exactly what thrust our country into our economic mess. Real estate for profit? 3-D! Debt? What debt? 3-D!!!

Most important, companies will use this lunacy to bombard our despised banks with requests for loans on unproven products. Despite wanted or unwanted regulation, lenders will be pushed into billions of dollars of lending to finance the production of these electronics. Imagine, if you will: a cell-phone company wants fifty million dollars to develop the first 3-D smart phone. That’s crazy, the loan officer replies. Who wants to watch a 3-D image smaller than a baseball card? Contrary to popular sanity, that loan will happen. Who’s going to say no to 3-D!! I’d stake my entire 3-D baseball card collection on it. Believe it or not, I have quite a few.

There will be at least one movie studio that will also believe this fallacy. The grand poobahs will decree they will make the biggest, largest, most-bestest 3-D movie ever! They will hire a crack team of fifty writers to write it. They will hire a great director like Brett Ratner, McG or Michael Bay to make it so. They’ll be more people involved in this production than the Olympics. It will be re-written by James Patterson, James Frey and the band James. It will be about some big thing that has yet to be big enough so it has to be bigger – in 3-D! It will be bigger than life! Big! Big! Big! And it will fail. Horribly. Horribly, horribly. Heaven’s Gate failed and who could have doubted Michael Cimino’s talent after The Deer Hunter? The concept of Cinemascope failed with Cleopatra, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz who helmed films such as All About Eve. When the 3-D movie of doom strikes, it will be harsh. Cleopatra came close to destroying 20th Century Fox. The failure of Heaven’s Gate bankrupted United Artists. The 3-D hype will destroy at least one company, possibly more.

Remember 8-tracks? Beta-max? Mini-discs? Laser-discs? TurboGraphix-16? Dreamcast? You don’t? You Lie! We’ve all invested our money in something that didn’t pan out be it technology or even a relationship. For all our enthusiasm, there still has to be something – or someone to blame for the fallout. There are few people who have the testicular fortitude to admit they were wrong. I still thing the Sega Dreamcast kicks major butt over PS2, Game Cube and Xbox. Someone usually has to take the fall because it sure wasn’t our fault.

When 3-D busts, the movie studios will do what they do best: blame someone else. They’ll drag Sean Astin, the fat hobbit himself, back on the Academy Awards telling why piracy is still the scourge of the film industry – even after successes like Avatar. Americans who spent buttloads of money on 3-D televisions and DVD players that are the equivalent of Atari 5200s will do what they do best: blame someone else. Maybe we will blame the President, whoever he or she may be. Maybe we’ll blame the companies who sold us this 3-D super-awesome stuff because it wasn’t that super-fantastically-awesome. We might blame our kids who wanted it all so bad for Christmas we had to mortgage the house to provide it. We might even blame Satan for our debt. It’s a better alternative than reality. From the days of the crusades to the days of colonization to the days of the Gold Rush, it’s never our fault when the tide turns.

When we fail, it is in our nature to push the “reset” button. Just one more chance and we can do it a little better. We seriously need to stop this. Life has no reset and there are no guarantees of extra chances. Sometimes the movie sucks, the concert blows or the love affair wasn’t meant to be. Failures, as hard as they come, need to be admitted and learned from. If we don’t, we’re just another footnote in an never-ending addendum of excuses. If we embrace 3-D, we learn nothing from economics. We are just pushing “rewind,” expecting the movie to end better. Eventually, the film stops and there is a blank screen. What happens next? The remote – and your life – is in your hands.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Who Decade?

I was never a fan of the decade sandwich. The previous two I existed in, the eighties and nineties, were more conglomerates of toys, music, movies and the highs and lows of growing up. There were more instances in a year that any type of trend. For example, my entire memory of 1980 consists of “The Empire Strikes Back,” nothing more. I was six years old, what can you expect? My memories of 1990 revolve around the Minnesota Twins losing a ton of baseball games, video games like “Maniac Mansion” and the general disappointments that come during adolescence. Before the age of the internet (at least as we know it now), we had to rely on significant events, handwritten notes and pictures to document our existence in that period. By the time 2000 rolled around and gave us an election few cared about, (I remember this because I chose not to vote) there was the beginning of email, internet research and a general desire to put things into a larger perspective. Perhaps this was because of age, me being the big two five at the time. Or was the 2000’s the beginning of something else that many of us felt coming. Although hindsight generally gives one the vision of Burgess Meredith at the finale of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough,” many events occurred suggesting that we as a society are indeed running out of time.

Before the 2000 election, I had always voted and was proud to be a part of the political process. Anyone who has known me for a fair amount of time can vouch for my incessant desire to pour over newspapers and do my best to disseminate facts from fiction. There are many reasons I didn’t vote in 2000, the foremost being I thought Al Gore and George W. Bush were idiots. Turns out, I was right on both calls, no matter which side of the political spectrum you reside. As the debacle of the election recount unfolded, I seriously wondered who was in charge of this mess we live in. The second reason I didn’t vote in 2000 was I just didn’t think I had the time - meaning I came home from work at 6PM and just did not care. Like many Gen-Xers, I was becoming dissatisfied with my job and opportunities were shining on the horizon everywhere I looked. Even though I was disgusted with the actual rules of the electoral process, my thoughts still focused on job-hopping. I had a good job at the time, probably one of the best I’ll ever have, but there was so much to criticize when everyone else is offering you something supposedly rosier than what you have now.

2001, the crash of the dot com odyssey. Remember all those ads on every station known to God? This dot com, that dot com, my Grandma sells you time-shares dot com? When all those plastic companies exploded in their own hubris so did the yellow brick road of employment. Unfortunately, I did make a change in employment, not expecting bigger will not mean better. By the time I left the new job it was August 2001. The dot com recession was in full force and there were few opportunities available besides becoming a human tool. I chose to do what any red-blooded American would do in that situation: move back in with Mom and Dad and pick apples. Getting back to nature and forgoing corporate culture was just what the doctor ordered. When 9-11 happened, we stopped working and watched. The people I was around were shocked, as we all were. But there was some semblance of inevitability in the air. It was unspoken in many places in the world, but silence speaks volumes. Rocky Balboa loses. Luke Skywalker gets his hand hacked off by his father. Kurt Cobain commits suicide. The fallacy that we live in a fortress of solitude was broken. People can blame whomever they want for the attack, but anyone with a good grasp of mathematics could theorize something would happen, sooner or later.

After the season apple-picking gig ended, I worked with a friend roofing houses, a far cry from running a music store in Edina, Minnesota a year earlier. Honestly, I don’t think I was great at it but I learned to bust my ass and got to know people in a way I never would have before. Taus taught me more than I can ever repay him for. While we were roofing a house in St. Michael, MN, I noticed half of the houses in the cul-de-sac were unoccupied. They were built but unsold. I thought it peculiar. These gigantic houses without a tenant. So perfect I wanted to buy one except they looked like every other house on the block. I wondered if I lived there, would my neighbors know where my stuff is? I spent the next year drifting, dissatisfied with my life and occupations (or lack thereof) until I chose to make a complete break with everything that was making my life suck. I bounced back into the parents’ house after barely being gone and a good friend was kind enough to offer me a job and with it, stability.

Over the spring of 2003, I decided to “get back” to whatever it is I liked about my life when I thought it likable. I went to baseball games, began reading extensively and started going to concerts on a regular basis. I did not have a lot of money – even as I sponged off Mom and Dad, but I was happy. I started realizing happiness is a far better trait than anything monetary. No matter if it was a good or a bad day, when I went to sleep, I did so with a leap and a smile (I was way into Donnie Darko at the time). On Sunday, July 13th, I went to see Blur at First Avenue with my concert-going friend. I remember about the first five songs, through maybe “Boys and Girls.” After ordering a beer at the bar, I was tapped on the shoulder. “Where did you get that shirt?” asked a tall woman with a big smile. “Suns,” I replied. “Hunky Dory is my favorite David Bowie album,” she said. We began a long talk about music and the greatness of the Blur show became quickly distant. She changed subjects: “Do you like “Doctor Who?” My nerves and doubts quivered at the question, which had been the geek kiss of death on more than one occasion in my life. I overruled myself, telling apprehension to go screw itself. “Yeah,” I smiled. She smiled (although I think both of us were smiling nonstop at this point): “It’s my favorite show. Who’s your favorite Doctor?” Again, shoving conventional wisdom in the subconscious garbage, I replied “Patrick Troughton.” “Mine too! I dressed as Patrick Troughton for a convention once.”

We talked for the rest of the evening. It wouldn’t have mattered if the Beatles or Nirvana with a zombie Kurt Cobain was playing. The only sounds were heard were each other. Eight month later, we were married at the Mall of America, featured music by Kate Bush and Guns and Roses. As I think about the last decade, I have little, if anything to complain about. I watched two wonderful babies born into this world and saw a precocious four-year old become a world-ready pre-teen with enough smarts and sense to skip a math grade. What’s to complain about? I read all these self-centered tirades by media types thanking their stars the decade is over. To them, I ask one basic question: What in your life sucks so bad that you want to forget an entire decade?

According to the almighty media pundits and pontificators, we should all hate the era of 2000-2009 because of terrorists, war, natural disasters, the economy, job security and “Gigli.” Anyone who wants to travel in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine or the TARDIS can find similar problems in any decade in modern history. Take your pick. The nineties had Iraq Part One, Columbine, a recession brought on by the S & L scandal, a lying head of state and at four movies starring Pauly Shore. Similar results are evident if one studies the previous decades as well. It’s all a matter of perception. If your life is better than it was ten years ago, then the “aughts” aught not to be taken with such sadness and despair. If your idea of a successful life revolves putting your investments and lifestyle in front of your family and kids, stop reading right now. Please step away from the computer. Find the nearest toilet. Insert head. Flush. Repeat.

Through the magic of Facebook and older means of communication such as talking, I have seen my friends go through good times and bad. They may have lost a job but I don’t know a single soul who chose to give up on their family or themselves. Their attitude in the face of adversity is stronger than bad guys on Wall Street or terrorists fastening bombs in their underpants. Pictures do not lie. Most of us have gotten married to someone they truly care about. Many have had children and are experiencing the joy, wonder, frustration, exhaustion and love they bring. The greatest of these, of course, is love. I see it every day. In pictures, videos and status updates. I see it in those who are taking their layoff time as an opportunity to spend with their kids. I see it in those who celebrate a party like they were teenagers but put their family first every day. I see us growing up, growing older but still being themselves. Despite the despair shoved down our throats by the media, I see nothing but positivity and hope. When I asked a good friend how he felt about having another child in the face of job loss, he answered: “I’m just lucky.” We should all feel that way. Every day, every decade.

Before we kiss off 2000-2009 into the wind, let us all think about how lucky we are. For one, we’re still here! We have friends and family we care for and care about us. That’s a stronger bond than any job, recession, war or Megan Fox movie could sever. Sure, there’s always things to complain about – it’s just our nature. However, what is good should outweigh the bad. If that equation doesn’t add up, it’s not too late to change the math. There’s a line from an old Jesus and Mary Chain song, “Head On” which states: “The way I feel tonight, I could die and I wouldn’t mind.” It’s the song that went through my head after I met my wife. If you are truly happy, you can feel yourself touch the cusp of heaven. Maybe these moments are memories or something you’ve just experienced. Like it or not, we’ve all had great moments in the last ten years and we are capable of so much more. Forget about the people and things bringing you down. We are so much bigger than all of it and - dammit! – we are better than our adversities. If our history has taught us anything, it is that human desire, ingenuity, passion and love will triumph if we are true to ourselves. The new decade has begun. Let’s blow the stars from the sky.