Thursday, December 19, 2013

Door Mats, Boot Lickers, Cage Rattlers and the Squeaky Wheel

The story of John O'Neill is one of the saddest and frustrating I have ever heard.  I don't know many stories that show the problems with modern American culture more than his story. He was the one FBI agent who knew about the threat of al Qaeda. When he followed protocol, he was ignored. He complained and stepped on some toes, he was made a pariah. He "retired" in frustration and started his job as head of security at the World Trade Center just a couple of weeks before it was brought down by al Qaeda, a horrible tragic irony. His body was found in the wreckage a few days later.

O'Neill's story is another example of the wrongness of the old idiom "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." When the squeaky wheel is a person, it usually doesn't get the grease. They usually don't get listened to or placated in anyway. They usually get ignored and as the squeaking gets louder, they eventually get labeled a "complainer" and get marginalized. I like the term Cage Rattler better than the Squeaky Wheel. It has better imagery. One of four things can happen to the Cage Rattler in any modern American organization.

(1) The Cage Rattler can become so frustrated that they stop complaining, they internalize their frustration and then they become apathetic. Like a doormat, they learn to be quiet, accept that they will be stepped on, learn to say "thank you" and are just glad to get a pay check. Most people are Doormats. They have lost all passion for their jobs. They learn not to question authority, not to speak up; it isn't worth the effort. They know they can't change anything. Their work with lack creativity and are, possibly, not very productive because of this.

(2) The Cage Rattler can get sick of being ignored and just quit, like O'Neill, and move onto a new job hopefully where they are in charge. The best place for a Cage Rattler is to be self-employed or to be in a position where they are beyond reproach. They need to have a lot of freedom and power to implement meaningful change. (3) If the economy is bad and they can't move on to another position, this can become a bad situation. The complainer can escalate their complaints so much that they annoy the wrong people, they rattle the wrong cage, and just get fired. This is the worst scenario. I've seen this happen to a lot of people. It is can get explosive. It is best to quit any job, if you can, before things get this bad. Just remember, one common way of fixing any problem, is replacing the person that keeps bringing it up. The Squeaky Wheel doesn't get more grease, it just gets replaced by a new quiet wheel.

(4) The best scenario of course, is the complainer gets listened to, the problem is resolved and everyone moves on. If O'Neill had been listened to, there would probably be a few more skyscrapers in Manhattan right now, there probably wouldn't have been a very expensive war in Afghanistan, the Patriot Act probably wouldn't exist and hopefully, the NSA wouldn't be tapping all of our phone. It is my experience, working in software support for almost two decades, that complainers are your friends. When one person complains, they are usually representing a bunch of other people who haven't bothered to. If your organization is a software company, complainers help identify bugs to improve your product. If you are a teacher, complainers help educate more students. If you are a security organization, complainers save lives. Embrace your complainers. No, they don't like complaining. No one does. If no one is complaining, there is probably something very wrong.

Cage Rattlers aren't the problem. The worst person you will meet in any organization is the Boot Licker. I'd rather have someone complaining to me than to have someone manipulate me. I once worked in a team of four guys at a software company. We shared a workload. Three of us worked very hard, but one guy did nothing. He spent most of the day socializing, usually on the phone with friends. Whenever a manager walked by he appeared to be talking to a customer. All talk of Whoopie's gown at the Academy Awards or which restaurant was hotter ceased at the right time. He was good at this. How did he get away with it? For one, Doormats were everywhere. He was such a "nice" guy and so well liked that if you complained about him, you were the problem, not him. He was a great talker. Whenever big meetings came up, he always chimed in at the right time. He was very good at getting himself on the right project, at the right time and taking as much credit as he could get away with. There aren't many more frustrating experiences than when you have worked very hard on a project and someone who has done nothing gets all the credit. A team with two Door Mats, a Boot Licker and a Cage Rattler is not a good combination. Boot Lickers are rare, but there is no better way to turn a Door Mat into a Cage Rattler.  Put him/her on a team with a Boot Licker and watch the transformation.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas

You could say that I have struggled with enjoying Christmas as an adult. I have attempted to make it meaningful and have failed. I don't bother anymore. I find Christmas to be a scourge on the planet and boil on the face of humanity. I wish it would go away.

Since it is not going away, I have learned to deal with it. I am not an environmental scientist and don't have any secrets to how keep your Christmas environmentally sound. The only thing you can do to keep your Christmas green, is not celebrate it. But if you are, there are certainly ways to minimize your impact.

Getting a real tree that is grown locally is certainly better than having an artificial tree but the operative word here is locally. Getting a Christmas tree at a Christmas tree farm (aka killing a tree for Jesus) is not as environmentally friendly as many people claim. Yes, they plant trees to grow and be cut down when it is six feet tall or so, this is good for the environment but not as good as planting the tree and letting it grow to maturity. Also, Christmas trees on farms not only don't grow to be large but they don't help to maintain a diverse ecosystems like those that grow in the wild. When birds nest in them, the nests are cleared away. Deer and other herbivores are kept away. When other types of plants sprout around them, they are pulled. This all contribute to these trees being more susceptible to disease and pest infestation which in turn, make the farmer more likely to use pesticides. Yes, these farms are a greener form of real-estate than a strip mall or a parking lot, but green? Not very. If you don't live near one of these farms and live in a big city, when you buy a real tree, you are not being green at all. If you think you are being green, you are kidding yourself. The amount of carbon that was burned to get the tree to the city makes the whole experience a wash. I realize not everyone can buy their tree from a neighbor like I do (not a farm but a guy with a few extra trees in his forested land). If you want to be green, you are better off getting an artificial tree, which is not green either, but it is reusable. You can keep it in a closet and take it out for the next 30 years. 

Unless your house is powered by wind, geo-thermal or solar, your lights on your tree are not green either. Non-electric ornaments are greener. If you have lights on your tree, you can often offset by turning off the lights in that room because the tree lights may give off enough light that you may not need the usual source. If you are one of those people who covers their house in lights and/or buys the huge idiotic plastic lawn ornaments, then you are obviously not green and you are probably not reading this blog posts because you clearly don't give a shit about the environment. 

Obviously, there are those that really do enjoy the Christmas season. You may know that the entire experience will never be green, but you feel that it is worth it considering the joy that you get out of it. Perhaps, but I would hope that you may find a way to offset this somehow with some other event during the year, like maybe planting a tree on Arbor Day ... buy locally, non-plastic and try not to travel just the sake of the holiday. 

Don't buy into the commercialism of it, obviously, but you should probably not buy into the religiousness of it either. If Jesus did exist, he was probably born in June. The December date was chosen by the Catholic church not so arbitrarily. They co-opted the date to coincide it with the winter solstice which was already being celebrated by the pagans. Then the capitalists stole it from the religious folks to sell plastic toys, greeting cards and adrenaline. The irony of this is that as a business model, Christmas is not good for the economy. Businesses lose a lot of money by hiring, training and laying off employees every year for the holiday rush. If the gift giving were staggered, like it is birthday gift shopping, they could maintain a steady employee base, who is well trained and compensated. If you want to help the economy, stop buying at Christmas and double your birthday present shopping. 

Overall, it would be it would be better for everyone if the pagans took the holiday back and made it their own again. It would green and quite a bit more sane. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Star Trek and the Irish

I have mentioned a few times how much I enjoy listening to Podcasts. In my household, it is perhaps the top form of entertainment, news and general information. Recently, I discovered the Mission Log, a Podcast that is going through every Star Trek episode, all the series, one at a time, to discuss the plot, the social relevance and trivia. After enjoying the first two Podcast episodes, I decided to make it a daily ritual. I watch an episode in the evening and listen to the Podcast about that episode in the morning over coffee. If you are a fan of the show, check it out. At the pace of one show a week, it should take them about 14 years to cover all the episodes of all the series, so you have time.

In watching the original series (via Netflix streaming), again in order, and then listening to two fairly intelligent guys talk about it, I have discovered one fairly disturbing trend that I never noticed before. Of course, I remember going into this that Star Trek was a progressive show for its time, so there are many non-white actors portraying non-white characters without negative stereo-types. I also remember that even though they seem to be racially progressive, when it comes to gender they are not so progressive. I was expecting the sexism, I even see more of it the older I get. The disturbing trend that surprises me is the anti-Irish vein there seems to be.

I am twenty two episodes into the original series and I have noticed three fairly obvious portrayals of negative Irish stereotypes.

"The Naked Time": In episode four, we have a drunken Irishman, Riley, taking over engineering. Almost everyone is drunk on some alien virus, but only one character is singing Irish ditties over the loud speaker and acting like a fool. The rest of the crew are either horny or like Mr. Sulu, swashbuckling. The drunken Irishman almost kills everyone.

"Shore Leave": In episode 15, we are introduced to Finnegan, a bully from Kirk's academy days that just wants to beat the crap out of him. This is somewhat forgivable because the character is a fabrication from Kirk's memory so perhaps, Kirk remembers Finnegan in this comically brutish form.

"Court Martial": In episode 20, Kirk is framed and put on trial by the crazed and maniacal records officer Finney. Finney is just a ball of Fighting Irish rage.

I should point out that Irish characters are plentiful in Star Trek. Doctor McCoy is somewhat stereotypical but in addition to him, many of the extra characters are Irish as well.  O"Neil in the "The Return of the Archons" and Lt. McGivers in "Space Seed" are two that are not so stereotypical.  The negative stereotyping is a mystery to me. I am curious to see if it continues. Gene Roddenberry, the series creator, has what I assume is an Irish name so this explains why there are so many Irish characters but why the negative stereotypes? Was he over-compensating for something?  In his attempt to be progressive towards the black man or Asian man, did he just forget his own? The show was produced in the late 1960's so Irish discrimination shouldn't have been too foreign to him, possibly one generation removed. Perhaps it was okay in 60's to think badly of the Irish like today where bashing the French is widely acceptable, even in some very liberal settings.  National Public Radio's "Car Talk" seems to bash the French every week.  I can't imagine them doing this to blacks or Jews.  Perhaps every generation has some small groups that it is acceptable for even liberals to bash.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Provincialism Under King's Dome

I don't think there has been a time in my life, at least since I was a eleven or twelve, that I haven't been in the middle of a book. I finished Stephen King's Under the Dome this morning, by the afternoon I was reading Paul Auster's The Music of Chance. I don't read as much as I used to. I am a better reader now, I see more and I am more critical, but I don't delve into them like I did when I was younger. The reasons for this are varied. For one, television is much better than it used to be. I avoided television most of my life because it was mostly very bad. But once shows like Madmen, The Wire and The Walking Dead started hitting the airwaves, I started paying more attention. Also, the internet has a lot to do with it. I am not reading full length books because the Net has so much quality stuff to read at my fingertips (and some not so much). I think I have maintained the same amount of quality of what I am reading, regardless of the medium. I can download this month 's Harper's Magazine onto my iPad whenever I want it. Not a bad thing at all.

I had given up on Stephen King novels long ago. I discovered him when I was in the ninth grade when the mini-series of Salem's Lot, starring David Soul, came on television. I ran out and bought the novel and read it quickly. When I hear sounds by my window at night, I still think of the child vampire tapping and it still freaks me out a little. This was his second novel, so I then read his first novel, Carrie, which I had already seen the Brian De Palma film. I was then reading his books as they came out, The Shining, Night Shift, The Stand and The Dead Zone. I loved them all. It was after reading The Fire Starter, I decided to stop reading him. I was a teenager, and I thought (as teenagers often do) that I was too good for this. I should be reading literature. It wasn't until I was in college that I picked him up again as some good summer reading. I read Different Seasons, Pet Sematary and half of Christine. Different Seasons was one of his best while the other two were horrendous. I had to stop half way through Christine because I was so annoyed. A haunted car? Really? I was seeing a formula that I didn't like. I stopped reading him then and hadn't read a word of his since, until now. I often wonder if I reread some of his old stuff, now that I am a better reader, if I'd like them as much as I did when I was a kid. But why ruin a good thing? Now, they are just a pleasant memory which is a good thing.

This summer I picked up Under the Dome at a yard sale for a dollar. It is a 1074 page tome that if I place on my passenger seat, my car tells me it needs a seat belt. It is huge. I had been told by a friend that I would like this one because finally King wrote something that could be considered literature. This excited me. It had been about three decades since I had read anything by him. It took me about three months to read it. Literature? I would say not, but it was a good read. I have read many good books that are probably not literature, but are simply good books. I would say that I enjoyed it but I am not going around recommending it.

I need to point out that I am in awe of Mr. King. I have no difficulty writing and coming up with great ideas and even characters, but I find plot to be horribly difficult. To arrange a piece of writing in a comprehensive story, to maintain it in an interesting narrative and consistent voice, I cannot imagine how he does it again and again. I have tried and I can't, not yet anyway. This story follows approximately 30 characters as they go about their business, for 8 days, after a mysterious dome covers their town. It is listed as science fiction but it is mostly a study of inner workings of a small town, surrounded by the dome, they can only rely on each other. How dependent are we on the outside world? Apparently very, at least according to Under the Dome. A power mad local politician, Big Jim, becomes a dictator within a few days by hoarding the propane supply, the only power supply, and demagoguing the most fearful of the town's citizens into a mob.  "A town is like a body, it seeks drugs to make it feel better." Big Jim is that drug.

The best thing I can say about the book is that it is perhaps the best portrayal of provincialism that I have ever read. If you have ever moved from a big city into a small town then I don't have to tell you what provincialism is. You already know too well. Being an outsider among people who have known each other their entire lives is an odd enough feeling, but when it starts having a detrimental effect on your life because of it, this is provincialism. Under the Dome does this very well. When the dome covers the town, they are looking for answers, they are terrified and are looking for someone to blame. The easiest target is the newest resident in town, a retired military officer named Barbie. You can guess who the hero of the book is. Like most of King's books, the good and evil sides are well defined. This is a trope of a lot genre fiction, particularly horror and fantasy, and the main reason I don't read much of it. Life is much more gray than the worlds that these generally portray. Science fiction usually doesn't fall into this trap, like horror. I probably won't be reading any more of King's fiction. I've read too many great books to spend time reading thousand pages of good-guys-versus-bad-guys and good guys win after a blood bath. Too many great books are out there waiting for me, literature or not, and I don't have enough time to read them.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Bubble Wrap Generation Goes to College

A while ago, I mentioned in a blog post that one of the reasons that I haven't reproduced was the environmental impact of having a child. But as a I mentioned in that posting, that was a minor reason. The major reasons were much more personal: financial and health. When we weighed the options, the joy of having a child were outweighed by the others. The environmental impact of having a child was piled on as another good reason. Another minor reason that I can pile into the mix is that I don't like how children are reared these days. Too many parents are over-protective. Of course, this not a good reason not to have kids, because no matter when you have a child, there are going to be other parents with styles that are incompatible with yours. I am sure many wouldn't like mine, if I had one.

The definition that the Urban Dictionary has for the Bubble Wrap Generation is very different from the one I use.  I use the term to describe parents that are so protective of their children that they might as well cover them in bubble wrap before they leave the house. This is prevalent in the suburbs where the family is wealthy enough to have at least one parent without a full-time paying job. These are the kids that don't leave the house without knee pads and that aren't allowed to do anything without adult supervision. When I was school age boy, I remember running around our neighborhood without any adult knowing where I was. Yes, I did get hurt sometimes and, yes, I did scrape a knee and bump my head a few times, but these were learning experiences. I healed and I learned. The thing that I learned the most was independence. How to talk my way out of a fight and how to be creative in our play. I am not sure the kids whose summers are filled with soccer camps and play dates are getting this.  Since this parenting style has been going on for years, we can see the affect this has had on them.

I have heard these parents referred to as helicopter parents. They are called this because they hover over their children. I am hearing more and more anecdotal evidence that the Bubble Wrap Generation is somewhat pathetic adults. I recently heard a story from a friend who is a professor on the West Coast that is sometimes contacted by their adult student's parent about grades. These are adult students employing their parents to fight their battles for them. This amazes me. I wouldn't have done this in high school, never mind college. This is a new phenomenon and not the first time I hear it, averaging about one student a year, I am told.

It is not just happening in college. At a prior job, someone showed up at a job interview with a parent. This was a huge red flag to not hire this person.  If they are so dependent on their parents, what kind of worker are they going to be in a professional setting? Probably not a very good one. Also, I heard another story from a teacher friend who was training a student teacher and asked for her to fill out some paper work. She said that her mother always filled out these forms for her. My friend told her, well now that you are an adult and are getting married yourself, you need to fill these out on your own.

Some might say that since I am childless that I shouldn't be commenting on parenting. I reject this notion, obviously. This would be like saying that if you don't own a gun then you don't have a right to complain about gun violence. How people bring up their kids has an affect on everyone, not just their families. If takes a village to raise a child, then that village has every right to complain about shitty parenting skills. That village, also, is quite good at correcting it. I am glad to say that my professor friends have refused to deal with the parents of a adult students, but will only deal with the student directly regardless of who is footing the tuition.

I realize that people love their kids and want to protect them, but wrapping the kid in bubble does no one any good.  As a taxpayer, I am expecting the future generation to carry my generation when we retire, not to ask us to do their paper work.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What is Justice?

My last road trip down to Fenway Park in Boston included a stop at a friend's to crash in their guest house. This is actually a friend of my wife's who is an ex-Harvard professor. He told us the most popular course at Harvard is called Justice. When he talks to a Harvard student about the course, he always asks them, "so what is Justice?" He usually doesn't get an answer, at least not one that is to his liking. I was curious as to what he would accept as a good answer and the subject of the statue of Lady Justice came up. I took this picture a couple of days ago at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. Many different versions of it exists.

Lady Justice (the Roman goddess of justice) is blindfolded because justice is supposed to be blind or at least objective. Regardless of your situation, your race, class, gender, religion, etc. ... justice is supposed to be accessible to you. You don't have to look far to figure out this is the ideal and not necessarily practiced. If O.J. Simpson were a poor man, he'd probably be in jail now. If Rubin "Hurricane" Carter were a rich man or a white man, we probably would not have spent a good part of his life incarcerated. Justice being blind is the ideal we want to achieve and we fail short often.

The scales in her left hand is for the balance between the plaintiff and the defendant.  The Egyptian goddesses Maat and Isis were depicted carrying scales as well thought to represent truth and fairness. 

In her right hand is a double edged sword which give her the power to administer punishment or exoneration. Without the sword, the rest is meaningless. A good example of justice without a sword is the Wold Court which has little jurisdiction to enforce their rulings. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Residents of Pious Mountain

One of the most interesting things I ever did in Grad school was a reception study of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. A reception study is a research paper in which you research how a work was received by critics and popular culture upon its first publication. This has always been one of my favorite books so I found the exercise fascinating. Other people in the class were doing equally interesting projects on controversial works, one did Lolita and another The Tropic of Cancer. We all found some really odd articles about our given work of literature, some strange, comical or even disturbing. The one that always stuck out with me was an article I found where the critic accused Vonnegut of anti-Semitism, not for anything he said, but for what he didn't say. This critic suggested that any novel about World War II that didn't mention The Holocaust was anti-Semitic. I found this preposterous and still do. Slaughterhouse Five is Vonnegut's most personal work and is a farcical representation of his own experience during the air bombing of Dresden. He didn't mention The Holocaust because he didn't experience it. He was a prisoner of war for most of the War.

This critic was a resident of Pious Mountain. The residents of Pious Mountain never miss an opportunity to fill the world with their deafening cries of superiority. They have to bring you down, to bring themselves up. This may be the oldest example that I have ever seen. Nowadays, they are everywhere. They can be seen all over the Internet, calling everyone names, "racist," "classist," "ageist" or "misogynist." The Residents of Pious Mountain shut down dialogue with every stroke of their Enter key, accomplishing nothing other than augmenting their own sense of smugness and self-entitlement.

They aren't always on the Internet. A few years ago, I arrived at work with a copy of Huckleberry Finn which I read on the bus. This is a great American classic, that everyone should read, full of political humor, sarcasm and biting commentary on 19th century America. But on that day, a coworker of mine picked up my Twain and said (paraphrasing), "you shouldn't be reading this book, it is a racist book." I believe I responded by saying, "What does that mean? Books can't be racists, people are racist." He had surprised me, so I probably wasn't that coherent. He then opened the book, leafed through it and then pointed at a page, "there it is, the N word." I tried to convince him of the book's greatness, of its importance in the canon, that you cannot judge a book by picking and choosing individual words and quoting them out of context. As you would expect, he never came down from Pious Mountain and I sat down there in the valley of my shame being put in the position of explaining myself.

I have had similar experiences with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. An acquaintance called it "pornography." After these two experiences, I learned to tuck my book into my backpack before entering the workplace. When it comes to Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, get yourself a good old fashioned book cover and don't leave the house without it.

The residents of Pious Mountain are usually well-meaning, well-educated and possessors of much guilt. It is understandable why surface judgements are easy, especially of anything that challenges your beliefs or makes you look at the world in a new way. It is a lot easier to point a finger and judge than grasp a new idea. That new idea might make you feel bad, in a society of participation trophies and self-esteem junkies, judging others for not being as pious as you is mere food for the ego. The Internet has brought this to epidemic levels. The easiest targets are celebrities and politicians. Michael Richards has a moment of weakness while doing a stand-up and every pious jerk on the net is calling him a "racist."

I have always called myself a liberal. What this means to me is that I am open to new ideas and possibilities, but it is difficult, when there is a screen of taboo words, ideas or books blocking the view. It just makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs, "come down from Pious Mountain."

Thursday, October 24, 2013

KKK in Indiana

I find the Ku Klux Klan fascinating. They seem quite insane, yet at times in our history, they were very popular and in areas of the country that I would not expect. When I think of the KKK, I think of the US South and racism against black, but this isn't necessarily true. The KKK has had three incarnations.

The first incarnation was started by six Confederate veterans after the Civil War. This is the group that is depicted in D.W. Griffith classic film, The Birth of a Nation. It was formed in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee. It was founded as a secret society for the purpose to restore white supremacy during reconstruction. They claim that they wore hoods, not to hide their identity, but because the group is more important than the individual. So no individuals should stand out over the group. They used violence or threats of violence against the freed men and their supporters. This incarnation was small and fizzled by the mid-1870's.

The second incarnation is the most famous. When you see the KKK portrayed in films, marching or burning crosses, it is usually this one. This group was founded in 1915 outside of Atlanta, Georgia and was inspired by the Griffith film. Griffith was an old college friend of President Wilson. Because of this, unfortunately, The Birth of a Nation was the first film ever to be shone in the White House. It was a new art form at the time and no one had ever seen "historical" events portrayed in this way. Wilson referred to it as "writing history with lightning." The film shows the original Klan as heroes saving the country from non-conciliatory congressmen who sieved control of the US after Lincoln's death and were out to punish the South. It also showed incompetent and immoral freed slaves bumbling about throughout the film (portrayed by white actors in black face).  The film is available on Netflix streaming and Hulu Plus if you are ever interested in watching a three hour long right wing propaganda silent film. I recommend it purely as a historical exercise. It was an amazing accomplishment for its time, however misguided.

This second incarnation grew to be much larger than the original  by the 1920s. It was very active around the country and became extremely popular in the mid-West states like Illinois, Ohio and particularly in Indiana. Indiana had the largest chapter in the country. The mid-West chapters were far more interested in Catholics than black or Jews. With immigration booming from Germany and Ireland, Catholics were perceived as much more dangerous. For a while, the city of Indianapolis was run by members of the KKK and published the names of Catholic owned businesses to boycott. During prohibition, they took it upon themselves to enforce the laws themselves. They stopped cars and patrolled lover's lanes looking for booze. They were a political force. Klan member, Governor Ed Jackson introduced the "Bone Dry Bill" that made even an empty bottom of liquor illegal. You could be convicted for possessing the mere smell of liquor. This group fizzled as well when the Grand Dragon, David Curtiss Stephenson, was arrested for the rape and murder of a female state employee.

The recent Klan started back up again in the 1960s in response to the civil rights movement by many of the older members from the 1920s. This is the group that attacked the Civil Rights workers throughout the 60s. Apparently, over 150 chapters still exist in the US today but have little impact. I assume their membership is growing now that we have a black president. They are considered a terrorist group now. They consider themselves Christians in the same way that Al-Qaeda considers themselves Muslim; anyone who knows much about either of these religions knows how wrong this is. Gays and Hispanics are among their popular targets now. Just because you don't hear a lot about them doesn't mean that they are not around. No matter what era you live in, there will always be a dangerous radical element.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Three Types of Sports Fans

I know of three types of sports fans, the Devotee, the Front Runner and the Pink Hat.

The Devotees are the hardcore fans. They watch or listen to every game, they even build their daily schedules and vacations around the schedule of their teams. They have the gear, they know the score, they know the rules and nuances of the game. They listen to the game in the car, in the yard and at the office. They usually grew up with their team as the local team, but not always. If you are not a fan of the Devotee's team, they are often unbearable to be around. Devotees, together, are an extended fans. It is tribalism at its best and sometimes its worst. I am a Devotee of the Boston Red Sox. I grew up in New England an hour or so south of the town. I have been to Fenway Park over a hundred times and have seen them on the road at any number of parks (Chicago, Detroit,Montreal, Baltimore). Before the game last week, walking the Freedom Trail in Charlestown, I saw some fans in gear. We high-fived. I will die a Red Sox fan.

The Pink Hats are fans that are merely into it for social reasons. They go to the games, sometimes wearing their pink hats, because their friends are going or their dad is a fan. They annoy the Devotees. They do the wave. They get up to go the concession stands during the most inconvenient times. They talk on their phones or to each other about everything other than the game. If you are at a park that puts a big sign for the fans to "cheer," this is for the Pink Hat.  When I go to a Celtics, Bruins or Patriots game, I am a Pink Hat. I am there just for the fun of it. If the team wins or loses, eh, it doesn't matter, I had a good time.
Unlike the Front Runner, the Pink Hats are tolerable. They may annoy the Devotee, but they are not scourges of humanity like the Front Runner is. Front Runners have no loyalty, they root for whatever team that is in first place. They might root for the Red Sox this year, because they were in first place most of the year, but last year they rooted for another team. When the Patriots were really good in the early 2000's, they wore red, white and blue. When Yankees were really good in the 90's, they wore the pinstripe. They are always moving onto the next best thing. If you want your kids to learn some valuable life lessons from sports like loyalty and perseverance, avoid the Front Runner. A big problem with them, they can fit right in with the Devotees for a short time. They are camouflaged by knowledge and feigned enthusiasm. I almost root against my team so that they go away, but not quite.

These three types are usually extremely easy to identify at a game. I have been to so many baseball games, I know I can identify a non-baseball fan when I see one. The worst type of fan at a game, the Pink Hat that has had too many beers. It is easy to see a hockey fan at a baseball game, they are the folks getting into fights. You can identify the football fans, because they have stopped watching the game and are now watching hockey fans fighting. The baseball fans? They are peaking around the crowd to catch a glimpse of the game. Please sit down! I've never understood people getting excited to see a fight in the stands at a game. Luckily, it doesn't happen very often and most people ignore it ... those are the Devotees.

I have attended three post-season games in my life. I attended two games against Cleveland in 1999 at Fenway. It seemed to be a different game. No Pink Hats, no one doing the wave, they were driven away by high tickets cost. Good old supply and demand! Everyone at the game are hanging onto the edge of their seats at each and every pitch. The chants, the hand slapping, the bleachers umpires and box seat managers, the place is so full of character and atmosphere, I have experienced nothing like it. I attended game two against Tampa Bay Rays this year, it was the same. Koji Uehara striking out Rays like swatting flies and while over 35,000 fans responded to his every muscle twitch. It was electric!  I have a ticket for another game this year at Fenway, I plan on doing whatever I can to get to the game, because there is nothing like this. I might be at the point that I am done with regular season games.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Ubiquity of Hitler and Godwin's Law

I have mentioned in the past that my wife and I take in a foreign exchange student occasionally. Our past two have been from Germany. When you have a young German in your house, watching television, listening to the news and conversation over dinner, you begin to realize how often Hitler is referenced. It is interesting because you can tell that these kids are sensitive to the subject, but since they were born after the Berlin Wall came down, it has little to do with them. They have about as much to do with Hitler as I do with slavery. But it is an uncomfortable subject nonetheless. 

I have become sensitive to the subject myself. I was beginning to think that it came up every day. So I began to keep a log for a month to see if this was true. It didn't come up everyday, closer to every other day. Only once did it come up in conversation. It was mostly from media. I only counted direct mentions of Hitler or any form of his name, not Nazis or any other general references. It appears that we, as a culture, need our boogie men. Comparing people to Hitler is a phenomenon that is difficult to stomach. I can understand comparing Assad to Hitler since he is actually killing lots of people indiscriminately, but a US President ... um, NO ... at least not a president who was in office in my lifetime. Do people need to put things in easy categories of good and evil to comprehend the madness of the modern world? Do the "bad guys" mentioned on the 24 hour news networks actually exist or are they just ordinary people thrust into bad situations making very bad choices? If I remember Machiavelli correctly, power corrupts everyone, not just "bad" people. Our news networks and internet feeds read like a comic book. I half expect Magneto or Doctor Doom to appear in Iraq or Afghanistan fighting Captain America.

If you Google the words "comparing people," the first suggestion that you get is "comparing people to Hitler." It seems I am not alone in my observation of this phenomenon. Godwin's Law was created way back in 1990 to describe it, back when only losers like me had reign over the net. At the time, it only applied to discussions on Usenet groups. Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies says that the probability that someone will be compared to Hitler or Nazis grows larger the longer that conversation gets. Apparently, you can invoke Godwin's Law the moment someone makes the comparison to declare yourself a winner in any argument. I plan to do so.

Let get a grip folks! Yes, I can see some value to comparing some despotic leader to Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot, but comparing a US President to them when he is trying to reform health care or even using drones. Again NO, I see no use of such hyperbole. I definitely don't see any value in comparing some stranger you disagree with to Hitler either. I am going out on a limb and say that anyone who does so "is just like Hitler." **deep sigh**

Here is my log:

9/11 - An episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
9/12 - On the Netflix show Derek
9/13 - Slate's Political Gabfest Facebook feed
9/15 - Stephen Colbert's Facebook feed
9/16 - KCRW's Left, Right and Center podcast mentioned how Assad is being compared to Hitler
9/17 - NPR's On the Media podcast did a story about Nazi's working with Hollywood to sensor        American films in Germany
9/18 - On NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me (podcast from June 15th), Bobcat Goldthwait suggested naming a rat Hitler
9/20 - Bill Maher invoked Hitler on HBO's Real Time
9/22 - Fox's Futurama made a joke about Hitler
9/24 - Slate's sports Hang Up and Listen podcast (made reference to sieg heil and Auschwitz). I am not sure if they mentioned Hitler directly. If I remember correctly, some soccer fans were doing the Nazi salute.
9/25 - The Daily Show mentions "Springtime for Hitler" from Mel Brooks' The Producers.
9/26 - Whack-job Republican Ted Cruz on the Senate floor compares Obamacare (aka the Affordable Care Act) to Nazi appeasement. Of course, Jon Stewart mentions Hitler on The Daily Show in reference to this speech.
9/29 - My wife mentioned that Hitler was referenced in the version of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice that she saw in Stratford, Ontario which was obviously modernized.
9/30 - There is more talk about Cruz invoking Hitler on NPR's On Point Week in the News. Cruz comparing members of his own party to Nazi appeasers. 
10/1 - On The Daily Show it came up in a conversation with Bill O'Reilly.
10/2 - On NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me there was a story about someone mistaking
 Colonel Sanders for Hitler.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Becoming Part of the Problem

I recently got the opportunity to see one of my favorite comedians and social commentators, Bill Maher, live.  This was a real treat. He ranted and railed about Republicans and religion for over an hour.  Unfortunately, something bad happened during the show ... I almost became apart of the problem. 

I was enjoying the show with my wife when the person two seats away from me received a cell phone call.  Everyone around me heard it. This phone was not on vibrate. The social shaming began when we all turned our heads to look at him, in the dark, to give him our best scum-of-the-Earth-look. I expected him to quickly shut it off and apologize. But he answered it. Guffaws from the crowd followed. I said something like "oh no, you're not going to answer it!?" The woman in between us, I assume his wife, said to me "it actually is an important phone call."  I said back, "then why is he here?" I then tried to hear Bill Maher, but I couldn't hear the show over this call which continued. It sounded like someone was "safe" and was checking in. It seemed to be a perfect use of text messaging and a phone set to vibrate. This is where I got pissed and I said loudly, "Is he going to pay for my ticket?" It was an expensive ticket and I was very tired from my drive Boston that morning. My wife said to me, something like, "you are getting louder than him." This is one of her jobs after all, stopping me before I go too far. I do the same for her sometimes. I was becoming part of the problem. This is a real problem of the modern world, when you get so incensed about a problem that your resolution and/or complaint becomes a bigger problem than the actual problem. Hopefully, you are all lucky enough to have someone to stop you from going that far.

Below is my letter to Higher Ground, one of the best businesses in the Burlington area, who sponsored the show. At the Higher Ground I have seen Aimee Mann, Wilco, Brett Dennen, Billy Bragg, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Andrew Bird, Martin Sexton, Erin McKeown, Guggenheim Grotto (aka Storyman), Johnny Winters and Michelle Shocked among others. I love this place. In no way do I want this to reflect badly on them. I just don't like to be pulled into someone else's bullshit. I would like a better solution to this problem other than punching the next person who does this. I don't want to become part of the problem. I will let you know what comes of this, if anything.

Dear Higher Ground,

Thank you for bringing Bill Maher to Vermont. It was very entertaining and socially relevant which is rare.  I appreciate your on-going effort to bring quality entertainment to our region.  I am a loyal and frequent customer and plan on being for years to come. 

I wanted to bring something to your attention.  During the show, a person in my row (he was seated in Orchestra row O seat 10) answered a cell phone call during the show.  The ringer was on and he answered it. He had a loud conversation during the show.  I missed several jokes not only because of him but because of the people (like myself) that were shushing him.  Eventually someone got the attention of one of your ushers but by then his call was finished and the damage was done.  To my knowledge, nothing punitive happened to this man as a result of his anti-social behavior … other than the social shaming. 

I bring this to your attention not because I expect the ushers at Memorial Auditorium to be able police every rude person, but that nothing was said before the show about cell phone use.  This gentleman’s wife stated that it was a very important call which means to me that he should not have been in his seat until after the call was received and completed.  Shouldn’t something be said before a show … particularly a show that costs over $50.00 a ticket … that this behavior won’t be tolerated?   I suggest that you announce that people will be escorted out of the show and their credit cards will be fined if they use their cell phone during the show.

I am grateful that a fist fight did not break out.  I am sure you are as well. 

Thank you for your time, respectfully, Mark Peloquin, Westford, VT

Monday, October 7, 2013

Mud and the River

The plot in the film, Mud, unfolds like the storyline you will discover in fine literature. It is multi-layered and feeds the intellect. It is a coming of age story about two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, in rural Arkansas after a flood, that find a boat in a tree on an island in the river. Living in the tree they find the aptly named Mud, a homeless fugitive surprisingly well acted by Matthew McConaughey. Ellis, aged fourteen, becomes interested in Mud's view of the world, a mysterious combination of love and revenge. Ellis' parents have recently announced their separation rocking his understand of the world. His sense of love and place is being challenged for the first time in his short life. It also means that his home, an old river houseboat, will be lost to him, dismantle by the river authority. He will have to move into town and leave the river life behind.

I have blogged more than once about rivers. I do not hide my love of rivers. Rivers are the perfect poetic image. Whether it is Twain, Langston Hughes or Bruce Springsteen, the image of the river elicits the movement of time, of destiny and of growth. Life rolls by like a river flowing from the mountains to the sea with many rises and lows. The river eddies through the countryside, unpredictable and sometimes harsh, leaving in its wake beauty and destruction.  Mud portrays this beautifully with some stunning filming and story telling. The river is shown as an economic engine bringing livelihood to fishermen and boats men to the small Southern community of DeWitt. It is a spiritual and natural conduit to life and their connection to the outside world (at least in the film). "This river brings a lot of trash down. You gotta know what's worth keeping and what's worth letting go," says Galen, Neckbone's uncle who is raising him. Mud, the character, is the metaphorical trash he is talking about and like his namesake isn't easily nailed down. It is a universal story of the outside world invading on an insular existence. Mud is half in between these worlds, rejected by both, the river and the land.

You can barely tell what era the film is based in. This contributes to its universality. When I lived in Boston I attended a writer's workshop taught by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. One of the things he said that stuck with me was that a writer becomes "universal by being provincial" (I am paraphrasing here). This is what you have with Mud. This is a small film with a small story that is really just about a boy's perception of love being formed by the actions of the adults around him. The smallness of its theme makes it huge in concept. It is universal in many ways. No matter what town you grew up in, you know of a character like Mud who was very much apart of the town, but outside of it as well. The large big budget films, that will fill the Oscar nomination list, don't begin to illicit the emotions that a small one like Mud does. Every year when the nominations for Oscars comes out, I usually just shake my head and think, "What a joke!" but occasionally they get it right.  Three years ago, Winter's Bone made it on the list of nominations along with this star, the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence. It didn't win anything but at least it got the recognition that it deserved.  It too was better than most of the other films on the list of nominees. Mud deserves some accolades, the big budget films that rake in millions do not. They have already gotten their recognition.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Star Trek and Physics

Whenever you watch a show like Star Trek, you have to suspend disbelief for the duration of the show, like when you watch a musical. You have to get yourself in a state out of your mind that some impossible or unlikely stuff is going to happen and you have accept them in the parameters of the story. In reality people don't spontaneously break out in song and warp drive will probably never be possible. But there are other things that Star Trek just gets wrong about science and if you know anything about physics watching the show will just bother you. You have to teach yourself to ignore it and enjoy yourself.  The most obvious example is the explosions that go boom, big loud booms. We all know that there is no sound in space. "In space, no one can hear you scream" because sound waves have nothing to bounce off of, there are no molecules to vibrate. Star Trek is good television but mostly bad science so we accept the big booms after the ship explodes because it looks cool and spaceships exploding quietly is just plain boring. Another obvious example is the fact that they never loose gravitational control. Their ships are running out of power and barely enough for life-support and yet, they are not losing gravity. They sometimes find dead ships floating through space that never seem to have lost gravity.  What? I could imagine that the portrayal of our beloved characters floating through the corridors of the Enterprise would be very expensive for a television show, but they should at least be consistent or mention gravitational control once in a while.  They seem to pull gravity out from hiding, like an unwanted step-child, only using it when it is convenient to their plot. When the ship gets hit with a torpedo, they all stumble (sometimes in different directions). But if they have artificial gravity, would this even happen? If so, then wouldn't they also all end up flying to the back of the ship when it goes into warp? I don't know, comment if you do.

These things usually don't bother me with Star Trek. I am not a scientist, I am only moderately knowledgeable about science and I realize Star Trek is, again, just good entertainment but not good science.  But the most recent installment of the franchise pushed me over of the limit. The creators of Star Trek: In the Darkness obviously didn't put believability high on their list of priorities. If a non-scientist like me can verify the wrongness of your physics with 5 minutes on Google then your writers are just damn lazy. The biggest problem is again, gravity. The Enterprise is orbiting the moon when it losing power. It gets pulled into the Earth's gravitational pull and starts plummeting. This actually makes sense because the Earth does pull objects, like the moon, into its gravity. The problem here is that in film it took about 10 minutes to reach the Earth. It took Apollo 11 over three days to cover the same distance, 238,900 miles. A ship with no power, plummeting this distance in minutes ... um ... no! This was distracting to say the least. I had to watch this scene again after the film was done just to see if I had missed something. The reentry into the Earth's atmosphere was also anti-climatic. We were set up for it by Sulu saying, "if we don't get power and shields back on-line we are going to get incinerated on re-entry." A minute or so later, we see the ship burning a little. No one on the ship seems hot or even phased by the re-entry at all.  No incineration, just a few burnt panels. Darn you young Mr. Sulu, I'll never believe any of your hyperbole ever again.

This film was more Star Wars than Star Trek. It was very little adventure but mostly explosions and action. This is not what Star Trek fans signed up for. We want interesting alien cultures, intrigue, a seemingly insurmountable problem, a last minute resolution, some social commentary and a little bit of action. In looking for a wider audience, they lost their base of fans. This is the Mitt Romney of Star Trek movies. The one thing they did right, the opening scene was really cool. It had an alien race, the social commentary and a volcano, but even this had its science problems.  Sulu (again Sulu!) says that the ship's shields can't sustain the heat of a volcano. Really? So a ship designed for deep space travel and entry into planets atmospheres (like it did to the Earth's without its shields later in this same film), can't sustain the heat from a volcano. I beg to differ. Lava is around 2200 degrees F while the temperature of the space shuttle recorded on re-entry in 1981 was 2500 degrees.  (Thank you Google). If you can handle re-entry into in the atmosphere, you can handle a freakin' volcano eruption.

This film is also plagued by something that plagues many prequels. This is supposed to be take place a few years before the original series and yet, they seem to have technology that even the later shows don't have. Apparently, you can transport to Kronus from Earth, you can call someone on Earth on your communicator while orbiting Kronus and they have some really cool automatic seat belts that come in really handy when that selective grativy starts to act up. I would imagine writing for a prequel has its challenges. It must be hard to resist showing new gadgets, but these are very challenging to swallow. I agree that the Star Trek franchise needed a reboot. The actors in this reboot are fantastic (except for Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Khan) and the special effects couldn't be better. After the travesty of Star Trek:Voyager series and the failure of Star Trek: Enterprise, the show needed new ideas and a new approach, but they needed to become more visionary not digress into an average action film. If this continues, I half expect to see Bruce Willis or Sly Stallone in the next film. I am glad to see JJ Abrams move onto the Star Wars franchise and leave this one alone. Star Wars fans like things-that-go-boom and shitty dialogue. He should feel welcome there.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Women and Labor

Back in December, in my tribute to Podcasts, I mentioned that my Monday morning ritual is listening to C-SPAN podcasts. This is still true.  I have actually always worked with noise. Perhaps it is due to being from a large family. My first college roommate noticed and was so annoyed by me doing homework while blasting Pink Floyd albums that he decided to hide my Final Cut album for a few weeks. Later, in grad school and while a professional, I worked while listening to NPR and now Podcasts. My wife comments often about how I don't like silence. This is true. Silence is boring. Noise, under controlled conditions, makes me productive.

This week's C-SPAN American History podcast was so interesting that it might have been distracting. It was about women in the work place covering the span from World War II to the 1970's. The most interesting thing I learned was that after WW II, women worked down, not out. I had always heard that women, who were working assembly lines and other war industry during the War, went back to being  housewives after the war. When in actuality, after the war, they didn't return home but simply were demoted to lower paying jobs. The attitude was that they were taking "a man's job and earning a man's pay." I can be sympathetic to both the men and the women in this situation, in that, it must have sucked for the women who lost their jobs but also, the men who made the sacrifice and left their jobs to go overseas, really deserved their job's back.

By 1950, there were as many women in the work-force as during the war. They were just in lower paying jobs after the war.  Their pay during the war wasn't as high as their male counterparts, but they were still higher during the war than after.  About 25% of woman sixteen years or old were in the workforce. We are at about 60% now. They went from riveters and assembly line workers to clerks, secretaries, teachers and nurses.

By end of 19th century, women were dominating teaching. In the late 19th century until the 1960's many states had marriage bars which were laws preventing married women from working in some professions, mostly teaching and clerical work. If a teacher got married, she had to quit her job. The baby boom of the 50's caused these bars to go away. Market demand is king which in this case is a very good thing. A nursing boom also happened in the 50's due to the American healthcare systems shift to a centralization around hospitals.  Secretaries, stenographers and file clerks expanded due to the boom of office work. All those women who were working during the war, who liked it, had plenty of other places to find work but still opportunities were very limited in scope and as well as upward mobility.

By the 1970's woman started breaking into professional jobs like management, doctors and clergy. Blue collar professionals like plumbers and electrician still have few women, but that may be a case of self selection rather than gender bias. This I do not know. By the mid-1980's, I was entering the workforce. In my home state of Rhode Island, I obtained my first professional IS job (Information Systems) at a children's clothing manufacturer, located in the south. Their data processing facility was located in Cumberland, RI. I was working the 3rd shift (7PM to 7AM three days a week) as a computer operator on an AS400 IBM mid-range computer. I was being trained by a young Syrian-American woman about my age named Myra. She had more experience than I did and had a degree while I was still working on mine. She was making much less than what I was making (my memory is not good here). I complained to my manager, Bob, about this and he justified it by stating that men were the head-of-household.  I expressed displeasure about his justification and Bob stated that I can resolved this in a very simple way ... I could take a pay-cut to be equal to Myra's.  Of course, I didn't take the pay cut. I had rent and tuition to pay. I cannot imagine this happening today, thirty years later. I cannot even imagine someone's gender coming up while we interviewed anyone and discussed their pay scale. This is progress.

I will not be so bold here to say that the gender gap does not exist. Not only don't I want to deal with the angry email that I would receive, but mostly because I have one major looming question: What does a workplace without a gender gap look like?  If all the stats are collected and we make all the controls we can think of for other factors like experience, education, hours worked, visibility and age/era one entered the work force (I am sure there are more), will we ever be at 100% equal. Aren't there too many factors to get equality? Isn't there always going to be one side always doing better than another? When you google this subject, you get so much data and so many different opinions. I found President Obama's comment about women making 77% of men. I found Slate Double X's article (their feminists wing) that disputed Obama's number stating it was closer to 91% with men working longer hours. I was going to make a link to the specific article, because it made so many good points, but I cannot find this article anymore. I can find some right wing articles that use Slate's to justify their rants. It is a very contentious subject. It has been a long time since my college statistics classes, but 91% with this many factors, seems an awful lot like equal, considering a margin of error.

Everyone you talk to says that the gender gap is unjust, but if that is so, then who is doing it? In such a competitive economy, why would anyone not pay a good employee what they are worth? Job offers are usually based, somewhat, on the prior job's salary. So if there still is a gender gap, is it just due to the fact that we still have people in the economy who were hired when there was one? So again, I won't be so bold to say that the gender gap no longer exists, but that in the last 20 + years, I just have not seen it and have difficulty even imagining it in our current culture. Perhaps I just lack imagination.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rivers Are Better Than Lakes

I have mentioned in the past, I spent a good part of my youthful summers in a rowboat on the Pawcatuck River in Rhode Island. Because of this, I am very comfortable in a river ... not so with lakes.  Lakes make me nervous. The apparent largeness, the wakes of motor boats, the deepness ... lakes are scary, rivers are home. Rivers aren't usually very deep. If you do fall out of the boat or tip over, you won't have far to swim. The stumps and branches make for great lifesavers. Lakes are scary when they are placid and scary when they are choppy. Rivers are poetic, full of personality and charm. They wind through the country side through fauna and landscape, cutting through mountains and hills. They run besides roads, under bridges and can cover miles of countryside. When you take a boat out on a lake, you mostly go in circles.

When my wife discovered the sport of kayaking a few years ago, and then got obsessed, we've come up with a deal. I will join her if we do a river. If she wants to do a lake, she can find someone else. A couple of weekends ago, when we visited a friend on Harvey's Lake (pictured above in the shadow of Harvey's Mountain), was an exception. We stayed at their cabin in Barnet which is in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, the most remote and sparsely populated part of the state. Harvey's Lake official name is actually Harvey Lake but the locals add the apostrophe, probably because it sounds better. It was named after one of the first European settlers of Barnet, Colonel Alexander Harvey. The lake's claim to fame is that is was influential in the early life of French oceanographer, SCUBA inventor and television documentarian Jacques Cousteau. We are lucky Barnet is in Vermont and not New Hampshire because there would probably be Jacques Cousteau go-carts and "trading posts" littering the lake if it were in NH. Cousteau apparently visited as a child and did his very first diving in the lake. I prefer to stay above water. When I kayak a lake, I try to make it as river-like as possible. I stay on the perimeter and take as many inlets as possible. We found a channel in Harvey's Lake that was a welcome change from looking at people's backyards and docks. The channel was very shallow and wound through marsh land like a snake in the grass. We had to turn around after ten minutes but it was the most interesting part of the ride. The circle around the lake took about an hour and a half.

The weekend before was more my style. We headed out to Otter Creek in Vergennes, VT. We put our kayaks in near the Rivers Edge Campground in Vergennes, VT.  With our friend, Cynthia, we headed out against the current so that we paddling with the current on the return trip, when we were tired. We paddled for about an hour and a half until we reached the dam which is very near downtown Vergennes. Vergennes is a cute little city. It is the smallest of Vermont's nine cities with a population around 2500 and it is the first city founded in Vermont's history, third in New England. I have heard that it is the smallest city in the country, which simply means that it is the smallest municipality in the country that actually has a mayor, but I haven't been able to find anything on-line to confirm this. The dam is a beautiful spot that is accessible by car. We stopped and had lunch surrounded by families fishing and picnicking and paddled back to the cars which only took a half an hour.

Otter Creek is roughly 112 miles long. Its waters start in a town called Peru on Mt. Tabor in southern Vermont. By the time it gets to Vergennes, it is only a town away (Ferrisburg) from its ultimate destination, Lake Champlain.  The last time we kayaked it, we started near Lake Champlain and turned around at the campground.  So after this trip, we've done from Vergennes Falls to Lake Champlain. One of the nice things about kayaking a river is that the thinness of the by-ways forces you to stay close to your companions. The conversation is better. My wife and I are not natives to Vermont but our friend, Cynthia, is. She told us about how the stretch that we drove past along Spear Street in Shelburne and South Burlington that overlooks Lake Champlain, which is now covered with McMansions and condos, was all farmland when she was a child, just a couple of decades ago. This made me appreciate the kayak trip a little more, for it all might be gone ... soon.

You generally see more wildlife on a river than on a lake as well. On Harvey's Lake we saw an occasional loon, but that is about it. Otter Creek treated us with an osprey mother perched above her nest (we could hear the babies chirping), herons galore and dozens of turtles.

Rivers are better than lakes. Not sure I'd want to building a house near a river with water levels rising the way they do, but for a summertime Kayak trip ... I will take a river anytime.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

How Large was Henry Ford?

One of the quotes I like to throw around a lot is from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass:  "I am large I contradict myself." I have said it so often that a friend of mine once made a button for me, with the quote, so that I could just point to it when I wanted to say it. There aren't many works of literature that get to the heart of humanity more than Leaves of Grass and particularly, the poem Song of Myself.  That was an abbreviated version of the quote, the full quote is:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

It is a simple acknowledgement that humanity is complex. Like John Lennon, Whitman had that the ability to say so much with so few words. We can, and often do, have opinions that contradict each. We can love animals but be a voracious meat eater. We can believe in small government but believe that government should restrict a person's right to choose. We can be for capital punishment but also believe that murder is a sin. Humanity is odd that way. It is this that allows me to wax on, bloviating, saying whatever I want to without too much concern that what I am writing doesn't contradict a post from three years ago. Next time you want to call a politician a waffler, you might to pick up a copy of Leaves of Grass to remind yourself of our humanity. We are large, we are full of perspective and we change our minds often.

Tuesday of this week, July 20th, will mark the 150th anniversary of Henry Ford's birth. I bring up the Whitman quote because every time I hear the name Henry Ford, I think of contradiction. He was a creative and mechanical genius but sometimes lacked vision. He was a champion for worker's rights but a spreader of hatred. There are not many human beings that have more of an effect on humanity than Ford, both positive and negative. Some say that he created the American middle class by insisting on paying his workers enough money so that they could afford to buy one of his cars. His mass production techniques of the automobile allowed many people to move out to the suburbs and leaving in the cities with big problems. He founded Ford Motor Company and the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation is one of those great trust funds that you hear mentioned on PBS. It was one of the organizations that helped get Sesame Street started. Ford was a leader is hiring of blacks, women and the handicapped. He was also a pacifist who believed that globalization would lead to global peace. He was an outspoken opponent of our the US's involvement in World War I.  He's affected everything from teen pregnancies to global warming. All of this is quite impressive and puts him among Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as one of the most important and impressive Americans, ever. But of course, there is a dark side.

In 1918, Henry Ford purchased an obscure publication called the Dearborn Independent. The eight years to follow, the Independent published many different types of articles but most of them revolved around one subject: antisemitism. He believed that the Jews were the cause of World War I and were funding both sides of the war. At its peak in 1925 the paper had a circulation of close to a million copies. Ford dealers around the country were urged to sell at their show rooms. They published parts of the Protocols of Zion, which is a Russian text that was originally published as a hoax in the early 20th century, that describes how the Jews were taking over the world's banking industry among other things. The Independent published it as truth. The Protocols were used in the early days of the German Nazi party as propaganda. In 1924, Ford received visits from the Nazi party where they requested contribution which he declined. They also awarded him the Grand Cross of the German Eagle (pictured below) in 1938, the highest Nazi award ever given to a foreigner.

Ford published 500,000 copies of the Protocols in the US. The Nazi's repackaged the articles in the Independent and published them in Germany in four volumes called The International Jew in the early 1920's. In the trials at Nuremburg, after World War II, many people cited this book as their inspiration saying that Ford was a genius and a progressive; his success legitimized his ideas. Hitler had a dogeared copy of it in his office. Ford is the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf in which he is praised.

How large was Henry Ford? Apparently, very large. I think of this in the same way as I think of Thomas Jefferson being a slave owner ... they are large, they contradict themselves and we'll never completely understand them. Apparently, while in his 80's, Ford was shown films of the concentration camps in Germany. He is said to have expressed horror. You have to wonder how much of the "horror" he connected with his own activity. Did he reflect or was he not that large?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Beatles For Sale

I have over 8,000 songs on my iPod. While driving down to Boston for the Paul McCartney concert at Fenway, I was pleased to find over 100 Beatles songs on it. We played on shuffle as we sang up a storm barreling down routes 89 and 93. We played the guessed the Beatles album game, in which Beth kicked my ass, just like she does in Trivial Pursuit, The Beatles edition.

She has always been a bigger Beatles fan than I.  They were always a band I liked but not loved..My tastes has always veered into darker territory. This is why I've always liked their later era albums, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abbey Road and The Beatles (aka The White Album), while she prefers the middle days of Revolver, Rubber Soul and Beatles for Sale. Both of us agree, the last album, Let It Be, is much more like a compilation of solo songs than an actual Beatles album.

I never realized was how dark Beatles for Sale is. It was their fourth studio album and they were becoming disenfranchised by their fame, sick of the crowds, the screaming girls while they were playing, the lack of privacy and other trappings of fame. They were going through what a lot of other rock bands go through after they make it big. The Who's third album was called The Who Sell Out which featured fake commercials, product endorsements and public service announcements. Pink Floyd's first album after their mega-successful Dark Side of the Moon was Wish You Were Here, where they lamented their fame with songs like Welcome to the Machine and Have a Cigar. The latter song has the line "by the way which one's Pink?" which apparently is something a record executive said to them thinking that one of the band members was named Pink. Like these other bands, the Beatles felt they were being handled. This was an era where most acts had very short shelf-life so they worked the band as hard as they could for what they thought would be a short period. After all, the pop music industry was a fairly new industry. The band was so tired and busy from touring the world, they had little new material. They wanted to follow up A Hard Day's Night (their third album) with another album that only had original songs, but they had used up all their backlogged material on that album. So Beatles For Sale had six cover songs and only eight new songs. Of the original songs, the first song No Reply is a song of jealous rage, then I'm a Loser is internalized brutality, then Baby's In Black is their first truly morose song. Our boy band was maturing. This maturing period is when they exploded creatively. I have new respect for my wife's favorite Beatles albums.

We were very excited to finally see a member of the Beatles in person. To see him at Fenway, was just too much fun for this Red Sox fan to handle. We had an hour to waste when we got into town, we took the red line into Park Street in downtown and decided to walk to the park. This was my first trip back to Boston since the marathon bombing.  I had the same problems with the city that I always do, here is a small list:

  • there are porta-johns on Boston Common but they are locked
  • all businesses downtown don't let you use their bathrooms unless you buy something
  • the T (mass transit) only runs until 1am while many of the bars are open later
  • people on the T don't move in to allow more people in, even when people are sardined together
  • and, my favorite, they try to get on the crowded T before allowing people to get off 
All of this crap made me feel good inside ... the bombing didn't change anything. The city had moved on.

The concert was even better than I expected. Just picture 36,064 very happy people (largest Fenway concert crowd ever) in your favorite place performing a sing-a-long. A very expensive sing-a-long is what this was. I was seated in short left field with the Green Monster on my left watching a pop icon. McCartney was late getting there, it started an hour late, but the crowd didn't seem to mind much. He played for three hours. Not bad for a 71 year old man. I knew all but two songs, so I guess I am bigger fan that I thought I was.

The best song was probably Live and Let Die where his band really jammed with fireworks and pyrotechnics (which I thought were illegal in Massachusetts). I found it odd that he never introduced the members of the band. The oddest song of the night was probably Paperback Writer mainly because of the imagery behind him. The visuals were great all night, but this one I could have done without. While he played this song, the images of nurses with surgical masks covered in blood were being broadcast behind him. I found this video on YouTube. I put my Googling talents to work trying to figure out what this was all about. I didn't find a lot. I found that there was a genre of pulp fiction in the late 1950's and early 1960's (same era of the song) called Nurse Romance novels. I found a blog dedicated to the subject. The images on these books are an awful lot like the bloody nurses at the show so I might be onto something, but I am not sure where the blood comes from. I always assumed that the line "based on a novel by a man named Lear" was in reference to Norman Lear but apparently it is reference to nonsense poet Edmund Lear. Since neither of these Lear's wrote novels, this seems irrelevant. The most interesting thing I discovered about this song is that it was their first non-love song. Paul's aunt requested that he write a song that wasn't about love. I think he succeeded sans the bloody nurses.

Here is the playlist that I came up with from the show I attended on July 9th 2013:

Beatles songs:                                          
Eight Days a Week (opened with this)            
Let It Be                                                        
All Together Now                                          
Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da                                   
Back to the U.S.S.R.                                     
We Can Work It Out                                     
Day Tripper                                                   
I Saw Her Standing There                              
For the Benefit of Mister Kite                         
The Long and Winding Road
Carry That Weight
The End
Black Bird
Eleanor Rigby
Lady Madonna
Paperback Writer
Lovely Rita
And I Love Her
I've Just Seen a Face
Your Mother Should Know

Wings songs:
Live and Let Die
Band On the Run
Hi Hi Hi
Junior's Farm
Nineteen Hundred Eighty Five
Listen to What the Man Said
Maybe I'm Amazed
Another Day
Let Me Roll It To You

He played a short tribute to Jimi Hendrix by jamming Foxy Lady on the guitar. He also played a new song, My Valentine that he wrote for his new wife Nancy. It was lovely. We all needed the break in our singing voices at this point, anyway. There was only one Wings song that I could not identify. Over all, it was an amazing night.