Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Graffiti and Art

Someone spray painted an alien on a side of the overpass near our house. It's the look on the alien's face that gets me. I cannot get on route 70 without seeing it and it always makes me smile. There's just something about it. Is it art? Is all graffiti art? Is some? Is it the intention of the graffiti sprayer? Is it the result? Is it the relation to the viewer? Does the fact that it is graffiti make a difference?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bondage of the Free

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a short piece over at The Atlantic about reminiscences from former slaves who wax longingly for "the old days." He points out that the usual naive narrative we've constructed around slavery holds that every moment of enslaved life was unpleasant and those exploited by the evil inherent in the system longed at every moment to be free of it.

Of course, this is an absurd position. Humans are incredibly inventive and plastic, and no matter how immoral the social structure, we will always find ways to carve out space for the creation of self. Especially in an ossified structure such as that of the antebellum South, those who were enslaved were able to establish ways of finding joy and expressing creativity in spite of a system trying to deprive them of their humanity. Third wave feminist scholars have spent a couple of decades showing the ingenious ways in which oppressed people are able to either subvert their lack of power or use their lack of power in a way that establishes power. This fact does not obviate the evil of slavery, it merely allows us to paint a more honest, sympathetic, and three-dimensional picture of those who suffered under one of history's great injustices.

The longing expressed by Clara Davis in the writing Coates discusses needs to be understood in terms of its context in which Davis was not looking at slavery in a vacuum, but in terms of a comparison with the life that followed emancipation. When we are oppressed, we often think of the elimination of our greatest burden as the removal of all barriers to happiness. But simply because you no longer toil under one evil, does not mean that others do not await. When a system is in place long enough, we learn the rules, negotiate and discover pockets of space for self, and figure out how to live as best we can inside of what becomes familiar. Change eliminates that and forces us to rebuild and renegotiate in a way that is often painful to all. We are, to this day, still seeing wars in all of the places that had been colonized by Europeans. It is not accidental that there has been fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Cashmere. When these places were given their autonomy, the process failed to thoughtfully put in place mechanisms to recreate the stability necessary for human flourishing.

in the same way, we can see that some of the more thoughtful pro-slavery apologists predicted what we find in the passage Coates quotes. In writing the article "The Greening of White Pride" with a cultural geographer colleague of mine that examined the history of pro-environmental stands among explicitly racist groups, I read George Fitzhugh. He wrote the book A Sociology for the South in which he argues that the enslaved Africans had two choices: either they could be exploited by the Southern plantation owners for their labor or they could be exploited in the fashion of Northern factory owners for their labor. As property, the plantation owners had (what he did not see as a perverse) incentive to take care of the slaves. As a result, they received as slaves what we would now call fringe benefits wherein their housing, food, and health were all of concern to their owners. As free workers, however, they would be no more human in that they would have to work for factory owners who would see them as completely expendable human resources because of their lack of scarcity. Life in Uncle Tom's Cabin may have been awful, he argues, but you escape it only to walk into Sinclair's world of The Jungle.

Yes, this argument ignores the actual inhumane treatment of slaves and proceeds on the racist assumption that the freed slaves were not capable of ascending to the positions of white factory owners because they were not intelligent enough. But it is true that emancipation would in fact proceed along the same lines as decolonization where those freed would not be given the means or infrastructure needed to acquire that which would allow them to flourish in their new world -- indeed, they have been implicitly and explicitly undermined in it ever since.

As such, Davis' words follow directly from Fitzhugh's vision. The longing is not for slavery, but for a stable system in which one knew where one stood and could in that place create oneself. Her words are really less about slavery than they are about justice after emancipation and our ability as working people in the modern world to be more than cogs in an economic machine. We see progress in terms of corporate efficiency and not human happiness and that makes for a particular form of life. The freed slave was not truly emancipated and that holds equally well for those whose great-grandparents were the Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the Chicago sausage factories as those who toiled in the fields. Clara Davis speaks to us all and Coats is absolutely right that hers is a voice we all need to hear thoughtfully.

Monday, June 28, 2010

What's the Difference

Had a little league tournament over the weekend and looking at the kids and the parents, it left me with this one. What is the difference between a jock, an athlete, and a ball player?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Tomorrow He Starts Getting Taller"

My Fellow Comedists,

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the invasion of South Korea by the communist North. For historians, this is a key moment in the heating up of the Cold War. For Comedists, the Korean police action brings one thing to mind -- M*A*S*H.

The 1970 movie was ostensively about a mobile army surgical hospital in Korea during the conflict, but it's real subject was Vietnam. Written by Ring Lardner, the Academy Award winning screen writer who was blacklisted during the McCarthy madness, it did something Hollywood rarely did, turn a critical eye towards war. War and soldiers were untouchable heroes, the brave men defending liberty and war films glorified battle itself and those who fought in it. But M*A*S*H followed Duck Soup in making the war itself seem as absurd as the characters in the film. (Yes, Laurel and Hardy were in the French Foreign Legion and Abbott and Costello were in the army, but the hijinx there never questioned the nature of war, just put misfits or con men in military situations.)

It made the move to the small screen two years later when Larry Gelbart (one of the collection of comic geniuses who wrote for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows) developed the concept along with the director of the film version the all around genius Robert Altman, and Gene Reynolds, and it changed television sitcoms forever. Among the innovations was plot architecture. Early episodes followed the template for all other sit coms. Strange circumstances arise, jokes are made as it works itself out. But Gelbart's wife remarked to him in an off-hand manner that the show lacked realism because life never has only one thing happening. From that point on, the show always featured parallel plot lines, much like a soap opera, in which you had two stories being told at the same time, interweaving, finding a common conclusion at the end of the episode. After M*A*S*H this became the standard approach to sitcom writing.

The writers also led the initial charge against the laugh track, arguing that the audience was smart enough to know what was funny. They won a partial victory, being allowed to omit the pre-recorded laughter in some scenes and leaving it out altogether in certain more serious episodes.

The theme song of both the movie and tv series, "Suicide is Painless" was written by Johnny Mandel, an Academy Award and Grammy winning composer and is one of the more ironic pieces of film music. When Robert Altman approach Mandel to write the music for the film, Mandel decided that the theme should be as absurd as the war it was discussing. At the time, Altman's 14 year old son fancied himself a folk singer in the Bob Dylan mold. So Mandel asked him to write lyrics, figuring whatever a junior high school kid would think is deep would indeed sound absurd. And so Michael Mandel's lyrics became the basis for the song which earned him millions of dollars thereafter with lyrics that many held to be "so deep." If that isn't ironic enough, the money he made from the song was many times more than his father, the master director, made from the film in which it appears.

So, the question for this week is what was the best and/or funniest M*A*S*H episode? I say it was "Dear Sigmund" in which Sidney Freedman, the psychiatrist who appeared from time to time, writes a letter to Freud describing the coping mechanisms of the staff.


Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 25, 2010

Rehabilitation and White Collar Crime

I grew up in Pikesville, the Jewish enclave in Baltimore. It was the boyhood home of Ed Witten, one of the greatest living physicists and a leading advocate of string theory, who attended Wellwood Elementary -- no doubt a formative experience. The area has produced lawyers, surgeons, playwrights, philosophy professors, and blog readers, even a former head of the Republican National Committee. Now, it is the home of slimebag and convicted felon Jack Abramoff who is working at Tov Pizza, the kosher pizza joint in town. Abramoff has been released from prison to a halfway house and is working for Tov Pizza rolling out the dough instead of rolling it in.

The corrections system is and/or ought to be designed for several tasks. It keeps dangerous individuals from the public, it serves as punishment for crimes committed, and it provides services for rehabilitation. The idea is that we know there are sociological markers which make it more likely that someone will commit crimes. These indicators include level of education, regular employment, and household income. The hope is that by providing those who have been incarcerated with means to alter these markers and by reintroducing them into society in a place where old connections and temptations do not exist with new skills that would enable them to live differently, the person can change the way s/he approaches life leading to the possibility of living as an upstanding, law-abiding citizen.

But what about cases where the criminal comes from a background in which these markers are absent, indeed where their socio-economic status makes it less likely s/he would choose a life of crime and corruption, yet s/he chose it anyway? Does it make any sense to put Jack Abramoff in a halfway house and give him a menial job? In what way does this rehabilitate him? Would it make sense to have Bernie Madoff delivering for Papa John's?

I could see community service as rehabilitative since theirs was a failing of humanizing other humans, of treating people like objects to be manipulated for personal gain. Perhaps working in a way that makes human suffering impossible to ignore might be rehabilitative for them, but what of the standard route? Does this model make any sense for white collar criminals?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Artificial Flavors

TheWife and I worked hard to keep the kids eating real food as long as we can before the larger cultural influences started exerting their unhealthy pressures. The less short of the short people had a class camping trip and on it, she tried soda. Come the school's closing ceremony, they had coolers and she asked if she could have a soda again. We gave in and since she was having one, we offered the opportunity to the shorter of the short people. He LOVES grapes, so jumped at the opportunity to try grape soda. You could see the anger and disappointment on his face when he took the first sip. "This doesn't taste like grapes."

After his baseball game the other night, everyone else got ice pops brought by one of the parents. Again, you have to pick your battles, so I said o.k. and he took a red one. On the way home, I asked him what flavor it was. He thought for a second and said, "I don't know. It doesn't taste like anything I've ever eaten." I asked if it was strawberry or cherry and he said that it didn't taste like either one.

Of course, it was one or the other. Our words for fruit are ambiguous, they refer to the actual fruit and to the artificially created chemical combinations that we label with fruit names. What is odd is that for many children the artificial flavor is the primary meaning of the term. We have so corporatized our food supply that the actual meaning of flavor words are no longer the flavor to which they initially referred.

Indeed, the alienation is so complete that we don't even need to connect them by color. Artificial blue gets labeled "raspberry." I grow raspberries. I have red. I have gold. I have black which is actually dark purple. There is no blue raspberry. There are blueberries, but even they aren't blue, they're purple. But the point is it makes no difference to children who don't eat raspberries. It is just a word. So, why don't we create new words that are completely distinct from natural vocabulary? If we are not even trying, why bother trying?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Is It Really the Though That Counts?

Last weekend was Father's Day and the bad Father's Day gift has become a cultural cliche. And, of course, when we get a bad gift, we get told, "It's the thought that counts." But is it? It leads to two obvious questions -- which thought? and count for what?

Is it the thought that led the person to get the gift? generally we give gifts at times when we are socially expected to give them. The gifts are not random expressions of affection, they come at birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays when we know we need to get something for someone.

Is it the thought that went into picking out the gift? That couldn't be it either because it was this thought that went astray. They thought about it (or didn't) and got it wrong.

So what thought is it that counts?

And what exactly does it count for? We don't keep score or credit. Is it that it crosses the line to justify appreciation? Is there really such a line and isn't it exactly the fact that the gift isn't one we appreciate as much as others that led to the saying in the first place?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Virtue of Quitting

There's the old joke, "I was walking down the street and saw a guy hitting himself in the head with a baseball bat. I asked him why he was doing it and he said, 'Because it feels so good when I stop.'" The moral of the story being that sometimes quitting is a good thing.

But we as a culture seem to disagree. Failure is one thing, but quitting is worse. Only quitters are losers. We heap scorn upon those who throw in the towel. You need to finish what you start. We hold this even when that thing is something we don't want to do and aren't doing well. I've heard the story from many fellow parents who had children in organized activities that they came to really dislike. "You don't have to do it again, but you need to finish the year/season."

It would be one thing if there were not enough children to field a team or have the dance/band performance without this one person, but that is not the case. It is that there is held to be a particular virtue in finishing it out, in not quitting, in enduring something you loathe even if there would be more productive ways of spending your time. Did you really make a commitment to your band teacher or team that has the moral weight of a promise? If you hate the activity, you clearly won't be putting your all into it and therefore wouldn't be maximally helpful. Wouldn't it be better not to be a drag on the group?

It is certainly true that many valuable things are difficult and take grit and determination to get through. Yes, we want to teach our children how to do what they need to do even when it isn't easy. But do we learn to do what we need to do by being forced to do what we really don't need to do, just for the sake of having done it all? I've given up on articles I've had virtually done because they weren't coming out as well as I had hoped and the research wasn't taking a shape that interested me. Don't see anything wrong with that. Is there not also a virtue in coming to realize that I don't like what other people do and I have the strength to say "no, thanks" and walk away? Is quitting really a vice in and of itself? Is that a lesson we should also be teaching our kids?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

In Which Comedism and the Vatican Agree

My Fellow Comedists,

The Vatican has declared "The Blues Brothers" as "Catholic Classic". Of course, we considered this masterpiece a "Comedist Classic" long before, but we welcome our Catholic brethren to party even if Jake does see the light at a Protestant service. I now expect that instead of the usual Eucharist wafers, Catholics will be taking communion with rubber biscuits.

So this week's question is, "Blues Brothers," what's the best scene?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 18, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Adult Swim: Protecting the Rights of the Privilged Minority?

I'm first base coach for the shorter of the short people's post-season All-star team, a position I enjoy greatly because the first base coach gets to chat with a lot of people throughout the game. At their first scrimage the other day, I was talking to Jamal, the first baseman for the other team. He was excited that it was a nice warm day because not only did he get to play baseball, but after the game he was going swimming.

We discussed the joys of playing in the pool when he launched into a diatribe against what he perceived to be one of the great injustices of the world -- adult swim. We have a scarce resource, pool time, he argued, which was sought after and utilized by the children in quantities as large as they possibly could consume. Yet every out of every thirty minutes, ten minutes were set aside where they were barred from this good so that non-existent adults could have sole possession of the pool. "There never are any adults who go in," he complained, "and it gets boring just sitting looking at the pool."

I understand that there are secondary, unintended consequences of adult swim. Getting the children out allows them to rehydrate and rest which no doubt leads to fewer safety-related incidents in the pool, but if we take adult swim on its face, is it fair? Adults cannot swim laps with children splashing around them. They surely deserve use of the pool as much as the younger set does. They don't get half the time, only a third. The children therefore have no room to complain since they get more than their fair share.

But, the children could counter, if we divide the time in terms of per capita users, we are the ones making more than 2/3 of the use and so should command more than 2/3 of the usable pool time. If there happened to be a large or even regular contingent of lap swimmers, then you might have a point, but there isn't. Do potential swimmers have the same rights of representation as actual swimmers? Surely not, the children would say.

But is this right? Should the adult lap swimmers have time set aside just in case they decide to show up? Is this fair to the children? Is it fair to the adults to eliminate it? Do you have to use a right to deserve it?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Do You Get What You Pay For?

Is the old chestnut "you get what you pay for" true? When you pay more, is it generally for quality or is it for marketing and brand status or convenience? Has the mass production of goods and consolidation in the marketplace altered the relationship between price and value? In which cases is paying more worth the extra costs and in which cases is it not?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Soccer Hooliganism

Let me say up front that this is not an anti-soccer post. Yes, it is a slow game and I have no problem with that. There is an ebb and flow and like watching the weather channel there is a drama in seeing things maybe develop and then dissipate waiting to see a sudden thunder storm with a tornado. I can see why people would enjoy the sport and how there could be fans all over the world.

I can also see how there could be riots connected with other forms of entertainment, like, say professional wrestling, where violence is ever-present and where the entire enterprise whips people into a frenzy. Hollywood action films have become more and more frenetic in their pacing because the tempo affects us. If the plot moves too slowly, we don't react in the same way. There is a reason why the military used drums and why dance beats cause us to behave in ways we might not otherwise.

This then is my confusion. How can there be such passion and violence associated with fans of something so slow?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Politics, Science, and Medical Marijuana

An interesting piece this morning on Morning Edition about medical marijuana. Thoughtful, but left a few things that I think need to be said.

The opponent of medical marijuana interviewed argued that (1) medical marijuana is a first step down a slippery slope and (2) that the legislative process is the wrong way to go about determining what medications should be available. We have a rigorous FDA procedure designed for that and it is there that science, not politics makes the proper determination. Both of these points are correct.

First, while part of the push behind the medical marijuana movement is about suffering patients who see this as a helpful part of their treatment, but part is also a camel's nose under the tent approach to full decriminalization of pot including for recreational use. The medicinal use and the recreational use are discrete issues, but one (which is more likely to succeed now) is meant in some quarters to hasten a broader discussion of the other.

On the second point, it is true that we ought to have an apolitical, science-based process to go about determining when a potential treatment is effective, how effective relative to other competing treatments, and whether there are significant concerns about side effects or interactions with other medications. We have that for many drugs with the FDA, but there are three points to be made here.

First, the FDA has repeatedly been denied jurisdiction over supplements and "natural remedies." This is mainly because of the political pull of the supplement makers who like the fact that they can make outlandish claims about their products with no need to back them up. Truth in advertising does not apply to natural or homeopathic products and since this is an herb like St. John's Wort or echinacea, it is not clear that it would receive the sort of FDA scrutiny that other treatments would.

Second, there is a problem with testing medical marijuana that makes all evidence sketchy. If any of the molecules in marijuana are medicinally helpful, ingesting it and examining the effects is bad science because there is no way to determine how much of the chemical is being ingested. Just as people range in height, so too how much of any given substance is in a particular sample of something from nature varies. We have two mulberry trees growing side by side and there is a noticeable difference in the the taste of the mulberries, they differ in the amount of sugar found in their berries. If THC is of medicinal value, then what needs to be done is for marijuana to be processed, the THC isolated and administered in controlled dosages at specific intervals. This is what is not happening with medical marijuana, so we have a lot of anecdotal evidence and some clinical evidence that unknown amounts of THC taken at random intervals helps some people with some conditions. This gives us reason to investigate, but we don't have reason to rule in or out. It means there is science that needs to be done.

And that is what brings us to the third point, which is that while the driving force behind the medical marijuana movement is political, not scientific, the reason the science has not been done is also political, not scientific. Our marijuana laws date from the 1910s-1940s and were fueled not by science but by racism against Mexican immigrants and African Americans who were identified with its usage. The social divide of the 1960s indelibly painted the substance with cultural significance and as a result research into anything positive associated with the plant was declared off-limits.

So, the result is that we have politics stopping research on one side and politics driving medicinal use without science on the other. Real science would give us pills containing the exact amount of processed THC, not brownies or bong hits. The proper approach, the middle path would make neither side happy and unfortunately is being held prisoner by a debate that is steeped in politics of dishonest, unspoken motivation.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Mixed Breeds

My Fellow Comedists,

So TheWife has been beginning to think about dogs. Mixed breeds are much healthier than pure breeds and in terms of intelligence and shedding, poodles are a great dog to work into a mix. As a result, we now have lots of poodle mixes which are not only great pets, but wonderfully funny names. Cross a collie and a poodle, get a cadoodle. Cross a Maltese and a poodle, get a malti-poo. Cross a giant schnauzer with a poodle and get a giant schnoodle. I don't even want to know what they call a shih tzu/poodle mix.

So this week's question, what is the funniest dog breed name?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, June 11, 2010

Should There Be a 100% Tax Bracket?

Stealing a question from Kerry today, but I think is a good one. Is there an amount of money one can earn in a year for which we as a society say,"O.k., that's enough." Should there be a 100% tax bracket, an amount where once you've made that much, the rest goes to help the greater good? Put it at a hundred million dollars or a billion dollars, wherever. Is there a point where we should say you've made the maximum this year?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

High School Never Ends

President Obama says that his biggest mistake in handling the Gulf BP oil disaster is that he believed that the corporations were competent to handle their own mess. Yup. Incredibly stupid. Indeed, it is the backbone of contemporary conservatism that the private sector does everything much better than government ever could, but nonetheless unbelievably naive to actually believe it. Especially as the economy remains in the ICU after almost dying from self-inflicted alcohol poisoning from the financial boys' frat party.

That metaphor is, I believe, more than a metaphor. High school never ends. The Heathers, the cool kids in high school end up one place in life, the nerds another,...pick a clique from high school and they get recreated in college and then further instantiated in the real world. Corporate America is run by frat boys who have never lost their attitude, they just dress differently and play a slightly different game. They sell the line that constraining their parties harms the country and repeat it until people believe it. When Republicans are in power, their fellow fraternity brothers now control the council and give them the power to do whatever they want and the result is always disaster. Look at the financial industry's representatives testifying before Congress and tell me they aren't a bunch of frat boys.

We need the government to be the parents who keep these unruly little boys in the check, the stern campus life Dean who oversees their drunken debauchery from getting out of hand. Corporations are collectives, they have entrenched cultures that are bigger than the individuals in them. These cultures are poisonous to our nation in the same way that fraternities have cultures that are poisonous to the intellectual cultures and missions of college campuses. If Obama thought that such organizations were seriously considering ways to manage the ecological disasters they would cause and not solely concerned with looting and counting money, then he needs to be seriously reprogrammed from the Reagan cult's brainwashing they've been trying to lay on us for decades.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Right or the Good?

I was driving in this morning after dropping off a short person for the last day of school before summer vacation and listening to Jack Johnson's song "Banana Pancakes" and couldn't help thinking of one of TheWife's soapbox issues -- the 40 hour work week. American culture is so infected with a combination of the Protestant work ethic and the idolization of capitalism (indeed, Weber argues that they cannot be separated) that we believe the right thing to do is to sacrifice the good life for the productive life that maximizes profits for shareholders. Living in a way that climbs the ladder is more important than living in a way that brings contentment and flourishing. "If you don't want to work here with only two weeks vacation a year, I'll find someone who will."

I'm lucky that my job comes with a great degree of flexibility, much more than many of my friends. Without it, I wouldn't be able to do things that give back to the community, like coaching little league or teaching at a local middle school. Without lighter summers, I wouldn't be able to spend as much time with my kids. But my job is far and away an exception.

Is it possible to do here what they do in Europe and build more humanity into our work schedule? Is telecommuting a step in the right direction or does is simply cause job-creep where now you cannot even relax and be at home when you are at home. With cell phones and e-mail are you always on the clock? Our suburban spread without mass transit makes commute times eat into our living time and increases our stress. Is there any chance that we'll rethink how we live and restructure it in a way that would let us make banana pancakes on a rainy Wednesday?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Almost Perfect Game and Social Construction

In the 80s and 90s, the heyday of post-modernism, the argument was not infrequently made that much if not everything was socially constructed. Facts were not of the world, but of human creation. It is true that a red light means stop, not because there is anything essentially stop-inducing about the color red but because we decided that is what it would mean. And so it was with things that were less obviously human decided.

How much comes from us is an interesting question, but in the game of baseball truth is indeed socially constructed. Did the runner miss third base? The video tape is irrelevant, the umpire's call creates the reality. "He missed the call! He missed the call!" is the cry that separates material reality from baseball reality. The manager can kick dirt, turn his hat around backwards, and scream in the ump's face, but his call determines what is true and what is false in between the foul lines.

And so it was that Armando Galarraga -- far from a future legend of the game -- was one batter away from pitching only the 20th perfect game in the century and a half (that's almost one million pitched games) that there have been in the entire history of professional baseball. The 27th batter he faced, hit the ball to the first baseman who flipped to Galaragga himself covering the bag which he touched a half step before the runner. But Jim Joyce, the umpire at first base called him safe costing Galaragga likely his only shot at baseball immortality.

Everyone -- Joyce included -- holds that he blew the call and Galaragga should have gotten the perfect game. The commissioner, Bud Selig, who has the power to alter baseball reality, could have reversed the call and post hoc given Galaragga the perfect game. But he said that he would not do it. Baseball reality is decided by the minor deities on the field, not to be recreated by the major god in the league front office.

Would it have undermined the entire decision making structure to reverse the call? Is it a singular enough event and evidence sufficiently clear that it could be seen as unique enough for an exception? Is the monumental nature something that differentiates this call? Should the call be reversed or should the social construction of baseball reality remain just that?

Monday, June 07, 2010

Is It Live or Memorex?

Why is the experience of live performance so different from recorded versions, even of the same performance? It can't be interaction with the artist since it is true for large venues where that sort interaction isn't possible.

Usually, the recorded version seems less energetic or at least less affective. But it can also go in the other direction. It has long been part of Grateful Dead lore that their performance at Woodstock was horrific, terrible, one of the worst. The electrical ground was messed up so that any time Jerry or Bob touched their guitars, they received painful shocks. In addition, the line has always gone that they messed up all the big events and the magic arrived randomly at smaller shows. All of them left the stage considering the set to be a complete disaster start to finish. We were never able to test the claim because the Dead refused to sign the release that allowed the footage to be come part of the Woodstock film and album. (They refused on principle, but no one was ever exactly sure what the principle was...) Recently, the footage was finally released. And, of course, it is not the unmitigated failure they remembered. At least that is what you get from the recording. It isn't the best work of the era, but is passable.

I had exactly the same sense watching my first set on stage as a comic. That looks better than it felt.

So why is the live experience so different from that we get watching the recording?

Friday, June 04, 2010

Best Potluck Dish

Off today to the kids' end of school year picnic at a park near their school. It is pot luck, although different grades get assigned different courses. This year, we are desserts, so I worked up pina colada and black forest trifles. I find trifles are great pot luck dishes because you can the amount you want without having to slice a cake -- it's a great take a little nibble dish.

For a main course, I like to make a vegan jambalaya (something our Louisiana readers would object to -- even if I do labor over the roux, stir, stir, stir). It's tasty and spicy without being too hot and is good on the side or in a bowl.

What are your suggestions for best pot luck dishes?

Thursday, June 03, 2010


I keep waiting for it to happen. Violence and revenge spiral into more violence and revenge. With each act it becomes easier to dehumanize the other side and the cycle of evil deepens. But occasionally an act so offends the sensibilities that it shocks the poisoned collective mind out of its hate and back into humanity. The naked brutality of the Amritsar massacre was a significant factor in making Gandhi's nonviolent approach successful in India. The deaths of innocent children in the bombing at Omagh broke the impasse in Northern Ireland and led to real progress towards peace.

And so it is through this lens that I looked at the Middle East wondering what it will take to shock the sensibility back to sanity on any side. My first thoughts after hearing of the disgusting and despicable murder of peace activists by the IDF and the sloppy and ham-fisted attempts to lie and cover it up was that maybe this was finally it. Maybe after Sabra and Shatila, maybe after the Gaza incursion, maybe after everything else, this was so nakedly terrible that this could be that moment when it becomes undeniable that present stances are irrational, immoral, and inhumane. Maybe this would be the point where any attempts to justify the evil right before our eyes would seem so patently absurd that things would have to change.

But then Netanyahu, in a move that would make Dick Cheney blush, used the phrase "violent supporters of terrorism" to label those bringing nothing but food and medicine to those caught in the middle and starving and dying as a result. And you realize that with scum like Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman in charge, things will only get worse.

And so the question is whether an Omagh moment is possible there. Have the minds of the region been so poisoned that a humanitarian epiphany is impossible? Could there be any act so horrific that it shocks the collective consciousness back into sanity?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Instant Friendship

Was watching the shorter of the short people in a context the other day where he came together with a couple of other kids he had never met. The instantaneous reaction was, "Oh my god, you're a kid? I'm a kid, too! That must mean we're friends." And so they all were.

When do we lose this? Is it adolescence? Earlier? Later? Is it good that we lose it? Is it naive innocence or artificial barriers we put up towards fellow adults?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

24 and The West Wing

Last week was the end of the show 24. TheWife was a fan, so I saw a number of episodes including the last. Finales always have built in expectations that they will be transcendental, say something bigger, make meaning of the show beyond itself and, yes, they usually fail and this one did as well. While the wrap-up did not make meaning of the show, there is meaning to be found in it and its demise.

Despite Keifer Sutherland's protestations to the contrary, 24 was conservative leg-tingling torture porn. You had middle class "normal" looking fellow citizens whose families did not come from western Europe lulling us into a liberal touchy-feely,bleeding heart stupor while they were really working for terrorist cells infiltrating all aspects of American society, and unless we committed heinous acts of enhanced interrogation NOW, millions of innocent white God-fearing Christian Merkans are going to die. The show was so black and white, I always wondered why they shot it in color. And that appealed to those who love the phrase "War on Terror" so much that even conservative Supreme Court justices would cite the show as evidence in arguments in favor of the government's justification for torture.

24 was for conservatives the equivalent of what The West Wing was for liberals a few years earlier. Both were programs written to engage the ideologically predisposed in a way that put a hero who modeled their most deeply cherished virtues into situations in which those virtues were challenged and, while those around the protagonist argued for pragmatic deviations, clarity of character meant sticking to the virtues in hard cases and inevitably led to success. Should Jack Bauer or Jed Bartlett do what most people would do and what seems reasonable in the face of this situation or should they stick to their proverbial guns? We know which they did and how things always seemed to work out for them as a result.

But there is an interesting difference in the way those challenges were set up in the two shows. In 24, the conundrums were generally of three varieties. The first was the classic sort of duty vs. utility chestnut. Yes, you have a duty not to cause undue harm, but if you act humanely then lots of people die. Second was the care vs. duty -- do I act in a way that saves a person I care about or act in a way that saves the people I do not know but whom I am duty bound to protect? I act for duty, but in a way that -- deus ex machina -- somehow saves the innocent person Jack Bauer cares about. The third was self-interest vs. duty -- do I act in a way that would save me or do I do what I know I have to do? Man up and go on the suicide mission and guess what, it turns out that being tough enough and ideologically pure enough allows you to handle a poisonous snake and not get bitten.

What is important is the way these were all framed, which is that the methods were never seriously challenged, just their tactical appropriateness in the given context. Anyone questioning the real-life effectiveness, morality, or cultural effects of torture and wanton violence was portrayed as an out-of-touch silly person who was putting everyone at risk and who needed a slap in the mouth and to be locked in a room while the real men took over.

The West Wing, on the other hand, took a different line. The conflict arose from both policy-level discussions in which differences were presented within the liberal framework so that the viewer would be torn as to which side he or she supported, and from a meta-policy or procedural viewpoint in which one is led to ask the question 24 never seriously asked which is whether the messy ends that are part and parcel of the political process are acceptable, whether doing what you need to do to get legislation passed in some way taints the product. Where in 24, you felt the character's frustration at being put in a position where doing the right thing is difficult, the frame in which it was presented never wavered in terms of what it was that you were supposed to think was the right thing to do. The West Wing, on the other hand, would play with that question often.

This is not to say that there were not straw conservatives on The West Wing, of course there were, but the frame in which they presented the conflict that moved the plot was considerably different. The West Wing had a hard-core conservative character who legitimately challenged the circle of "good guys" and ended with the emergence of a centrist Republican who was intentionally sympathetic, who fared well when paired against an intelligent liberal Democrat. It is cliche to say that liberals prefer NPR while conservatives prefer Fox News and that they are not mirror images of each other, but sometimes cliches are rooted in reality and the end of 24 seems to say something interesting about what topics can be addressed within the intellectual framework of each worldview.