Thursday, September 29, 2005

Godfrey: the sickly, unemployed, amateur children's magician.

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, the SJ-R’s Arts and Entertainment section is one of the paper’s most consistently strong features and has been for some time. The expansion of the section to a supplement allows for a much more diverse look at the arts scene at both a local and national level.

What impresses me most about Nick Rogers and the A & E staff is their willingness to step outside the mainstream with some of their content, while still covering the chart-toppers, box office busters, and rating champions. A look at the music coverage this week provides a good example of this diversity.

Included in this week is a syndicated article on the upcoming reunion tour of the New York Dolls, the seminal punk/glam band who released two albums in the seventies but whose influence carries on to this day. The band’s hey day preceded my interest in punk and alternative music, the lure of New York’s underground rock scene didn’t extend to the music program at St. Aloysius School. My closest connection to the band is a song guitarist Johnny Thunders recorded, an achingly beautiful song titled “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” that is currently in regular rotation on my iPod.

The latest Springfield visit by Chicago songwriter Robbie Fulks is the subject of another article. In it, Fulks somewhat bemoans the fact, although not to the point of whining, that his instinctive ability to write funny songs sometimes interferes with the listener’s ability to appreciate his more serious tunes. I can see how this might be disillusioning for an artist, but my two favorite Fulks songs are really funny.

“That Bangle Girl” is a tribute to the eternally cute but marginally talented Susannah Hoff, she of the sidelong come hither glance. The song features the subtle yet deadly line about Hoff’s attempt at an acting career: “I love the way she sings and I … sat through her movie.”

The other song is on a children’s album that Bloodshot Records released a few years ago. Fulk’s contribution is “Godfrey”: the sickly unemployed amateur children’s magician. It’s not the stuff of Barney, in fact it’s rather twisted with Godfrey being put away for a while by song’s end, but it is delightfully catchy with a sing-along chorus.

Flowing in on the mainstream, an article on an upcoming show by a Jimmy Buffet tribute band is promoted. I have two problems with this. Not the Rogers-penned article itself, but with Jimmy Buffet tribute bands in general.

First, I’ve never been a Buffet fan and no amount of alcohol can ever change that. There is just something so corporate about his whole act, very Madison Avenue-y if you will. It’s almost as if the tequila industry or the Key West Chamber of Commerce contracted with an advertising agency to create a fictional character who would sell the laidback beachcomber lifestyle to a bevy of corn-fed, pasty-skinned Midwesterners. Even his songs sound as if they were written to promote some product or tourist locale. Margaritas. Cheeseburgers. Shark-infested waters. Okay, maybe not all of them.

If Buffet is the lovechild of a marketer’s profit-driven imagination, then job well done. Because you know that an act has thoroughly entrenched itself in the marketplace when it starts to spawn tribute bands.

This leads to my second problem. I’ve never gotten the appeal of the tribute band. They’re part karaoke, part Madame Tussaud, with a little Rich Little thrown in to boot. I’ll listen to a band covering other people’s songs, but don’t ask me to play along with some failed artist’s psychotic delusions that he’s a musical superstar and charge me $20 for the honor. We’ve all imagined what it would be like to be a famous person, but when such reveries begin to seem like a viable career path, then a day of reckoning with reality should come down upon you with the force of a thousand Elvis impersonators descending upon a Las Vegas buffet.

The CD reviews this week are disappointing in that they stick to well-known artists, although they are usually more adventurous with their selections. Earlier this year, they earned my utmost respect when they included a review of Aimee Mann’s latest release. For those who don’t know, Aimee is one of the most literate and sincere songwriters of this generation. Her Oscar loss to Phil Collins for best song in 2000 isn't indicative of her talent but rather the Academy’s preference for vacuous exercises in maudlinity over true craft.

Maybe the best thing about the A & E section is that it is free from the bad news that often inhabits the front page and the contentious debate that is rife on the editorial page. It's a nice escape from the hard news and serves as my last connection to the high drama world of professional wrestling.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Look to the cookie, Elaine... look to the cookie!

I weighed-in on certain aspects of the Davlin/Dewith-Anderson controversy yesterday, aspects that I hadn’t yet seen addressed in the media, as is my wont. I didn’t address the predominate issue of racism. So to the question - does Davlin’s comment about not wanting to meet with more than three blacks at a single meeting indicate a racist intent? – I would say possibly but not necessarily. The reason being that if the comment is racist on its face, then Dewith-Anderson seems to share this particular prejudice.

In responding to Davlin’s trepidation after a boisterous meeting with black community leaders, Dewith-Anderson responded: “I proceeded to explain to him that he ought to be glad they were screaming, because when we get quiet, it’s over with.”

It’s the use of the word “we” that strikes me here. To me, she seems to be using it in a sort of universal sense and is speaking on behalf of blacks in general. If she was only referring to the attendees at the meeting, she would have used the word "they" as she did in the first clause of the sentence. So by doing this, is she not saying that the demeanor of the leaders at the meeting is common among blacks, and as such, offers some degree of validity to the perceived stereotype that Davlin advanced in his comments? Or am I reading too much into it?

I’ve heard and read many black commentators speak of the cultural differences between blacks and whites, and how blacks have a propensity towards being more direct and open in expressing their emotions. This isn’t a fault, it is simply a difference. The example of a highly-electrified Baptist service versus a solemn Catholic mass is a common point of comparison.

Obviously there are many exceptions to this commonality, and it is dangerous to form preconceptions of individuals or groups based on it. But it’s also part of our human make-up to stereotype people according to their race, ethnicity, sex, or any number of characteristics, associations, or affinities. Just ask Frank Kunz who has determined that typical Griffin High School grads, Davlin notably excluded, like to talk their "white boy s***" after loosening up with a few drinks. As a GHS alum, I don’t take offense to Kunz’s dig because it doesn’t apply to me nor to many of my friends, although it surely would apply to some. I will say that if Larry Selinger would have made any type of disparaging generalization about the graduates of the city’s public high schools there would be another firestorm whipping through the community right now. But that's merely speculation.

Davlin’s statement is clumsy and too sweeping in its judgment. He should have said that he would only meet with any three of the community leaders at one time given the climate of the previous meeting, and perhaps that was his intent. Based on reports of the reactions of people close to the situation, the consensus seems to be that the mayor doesn't harbor any personal racist feelings, but that his administration has been lacking in addressing issues important to the black community. So maybe the current debate would be more useful if it focused on the latter.

*"Nothing mixes better than, vanilla and chocolate. And yet still somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only Look to the Cookie -- all our problems would be solved." Seinfeld, episode 77, The Dinner Party

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Please Stand By

I've been experiencing some difficulties with the old blog lately. I think that I have traced the problem to the code from a new image hosting service I'm trying out. Please let me know if you are still having problems getting the site to load.

I'm sorry that you have been denied your regular dose of my insightful observations and cutting wit. It must be hell for you.


Loggers Lose Another Leader

You can add another verse to Lincoln Land’s (LLCC) “somebody's done somebody wrong song” as the serial-jilted junior college has been abandoned at the altar for the second time in a month. Before their good name is soiled further, the board of trustees might want to try a more unconventional method for finding a new president. Desperate times, after all, call for deceptive measures.

An article in told of a U.K. firm engaged in the trade of what they term “influence operations”, but what could more accurately be described as mass deception on a grand scale. Readers familiar with the 1997 movie Wag the Dog know the type of propaganda this firm is peddling.

In the movie, the president’s handlers cook-up a faux military invasion to distract the country away from impending accusations that their boss felt-up a girl scout who was visiting the White House. They enlist the help of a Hollywood producer to create a story line that plays unfettered throughout the media, one involving the homecoming of a heroic prisoner-of-war played to the tune of a half-baked anthem by Willie Nelson. It works beautifully as the country becomes caught-up in a collective spell of patriotism and the president is free to grope again as the leader of the free world.

It’s too late for LLCC to distract the public from the bombshells that sent past presidents packing. They could, however, ply a little hocus-pocus and miscommunication towards the task of presenting the community with the perfect leader for their esteemed learning institution.

Yes, what they need is a puppet. Someone who can do the board’s bidding until which time a legally unretractable agreement can be reached with a legitimate president, preferably signed in the candidate’s own blood. At that point, the propped-up president could meet his doom in some dramatisized and sensationalized manner that will only add to his brief but esteemed legacy at the school.

The trick to pulling-off a ploy of this nature is finding a shill to play the part of the puppet president. It has to be a total unknown whose back story can be created from scratch and who won’t embarrassingly pop-up later after he’s been asked to shuffle off. It is here that we turn to another film for inspiration.

In Being There, Peter Sellers plays Chance, a simpleton who is mistaken for a wealthy businessman and noted raconteur. His every utterance and reaction, which are shaped entirely by his sheltered life as a gardener and obsessive television watcher, are interpreted by his fawning acquaintances as the genuine portrayal of wit and wisdom. Even the president is taken-in and seeks counsel from the oblivious imposter (the businessman is named Chauncey Gardiner, a name to which Chance the gardner mistakenly answers to.)

So it’s clear that what we are looking for here is a useful idiot. Someone whose eccentric behavior and disheveled appearance can be interpreted as the mien of a serious scholar. Presented to the press as having a distinguished academic pedigree, his mumbled monosyllabic responses to their questions will be perfumed in the scent of erudition. Maybe I could pull it off.

The board should give this idea serious consideration. A similar ruse worked in the Bad News Bears in Basic Training when the young scamps needed someone to briefly pose as their coach so that they could make the trip to Houston unencumbered by parental influence. This is obviously a time-tested and foolproof plan.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Pretzel in the Rye

The Voice section of the SJ-R has an article on a girl at New Berlin High School (the Pretzels) who is participating in her fourth year on the football team. If a young lady wants to strap on some pads and mix it up with the laddies on the gridiron, that’s fine by me. The article doesn’t mention what kind of playing time she has earned at her lineperson’s positions, but I assume that if she’s been blowing-up backfields or pancaking pass rushers, it would have been mentioned. Still, her commitment and courage are admirable.

To my knowledge, the only impact females have had on male football teams have been at the place kicker position, as immortalized by Kathy Ireland’s star turn as Lucy Draper in the 1991 classic, Necessary Roughness.

Also in the early 90s, Sacred Heart-Griffin suited up a female soccer player at that position. As I recall, the story played out as an after school special as her initial introduction to the team, at the head coach's urging, was met with derision from some of her teammates, but ended in collective triumph after she tacked on the final extra point in a 49 to nothing route of their arch rival the Visitors.

While I harbor no fundamental gripe with girls competing on boys teams when a girls team of that sport isn’t offered, I don’t think that this progressive attitude would hold true in the opposite direction.

I can imagine a scenario in which a family relocates to Springfield from California where their twin, 6’3” sons had played competitive volleyball for many years. Since there are no school-sponsored male volleyball teams at city high schools, the pair join the girls team. Does anyone doubt the pronounced impact they would have on the competitive nature of the matches that they participate in? An average team would suddenly be state championship caliber. So does anyone doubt that they would somehow be prevented from playing?

Gender equity is important in terms of opportunity and compensation, but it doesn’t mean that men and women are on equal ground in all aspects of life, athletically ability being one area where men happen to excel in comparison to women. But while the notion of a male dominated society is still prevalent and largely accurate, there is new thought that maybe our sons are getting short changed in some respects as well.

Carol Gilligan, a Harvard social psychologist, made hay back in 1982 with her book “In a Different Voice” that put forth the idea that girls are routinely silenced in a male society and that they are put at a disadvantage in an educational system that favors a learning style more favorable to boys. She received much praise in the media and among many educators, but was ultimately scorned by research psychologists who could not only not replicate her findings, but in some cases found that it is boys who are struggling more in the educational system. Gilligan was also criticized for not releasing her research data that supported her claim, a move that is considered “unacceptable in empirical research.”

Around 56 percent of college students in the U.S. are female. Given that the population is pretty evenly split, with females holding a slight edge, this is a fairly significant difference. Considering that it wasn’t all that long ago that the prevailing wisdom was that women were best suited for domestic roles, it does appear that they are now navigating the seas of scholarship quite ably.

A recent article in Newsweek told of a school in Kentucky that is addressing the issue of gender and learning by dividing classes according to sex. Here too they claim that boys are at a disadvantage due to the fact that since most teachers are women, especially at the elementary school level, a system of education that favors the way the female brain has been shown to process information predominates. Critics argue that while there is evidence of differences in brain function between the sexes, it is insignificant compared to the differences that occur between individuals within the same gender. It’s obviously an area that merits more study before radically redesigning the classroom.

I don’t agree that if girls are indeed surpassing boys in the classroom, that it is necessarily due to some inadequacies in teaching methods. Maybe girls, on average, are just smarter in many respects. I certainly hope that the perceived slights to males as the result of the feminist movement don’t lead to the establishment of men’s studies programs at our universities, as such things are usually more concerned with ideology rather than scholarly pursuit. We don’t need a bunch of Holden Caulfield wannabees sitting in a circle and beating tom-toms while whining that the world is hostile to their inner being, when they should be reading the classics or drinking beer.

In a somewhat related note, the article on the New Berlin football maiden included a mention of a young man who is the only male cheerleader at his school. Although male cheerleaders are common at the collegiate level, they are rare in high school so it is unfortunate but not surprising that the young man admits to being the subject of much ridicule. Given that fact, I would think that it takes much more courage and toughness to do what he is doing than it does to play on the football team. It’s not really a path that I want my sons to pursue, but if they did, I would feel safe in knowing that if they had the fortitude to carry through with it, then they would have no trouble accomplishing anything else they set out to do in life.

Monday, September 19, 2005

What a Friend We Have in Bono

The New York Times Magazine’s feature article this week is on Paul Hewson, Bono Vox to you and me. I don't count myself among U2's most fervent fans, I thought they peaked with Under a Blood Red Sky, but I am becoming a fan of Bono the activist. You can argue whether debt relief to third-world countries is the panacea for their most desperate ills, but you can’t dispute his genuine passion and conviction for improving the lives of people in Africa, both economically and through AIDS relief. He’s also one hell of a politician, a word that has very little good still associated with it, but in this case, it is meant as a compliment.

It’s easy to ridicule celebrity do-gooders. Often times it is right to do so. Bono himself is often mocked as having a messianic complex. What sets him apart from many of the others, however, is that he doesn’t let the petty adversarial side of politics interfere with his single-minded pursuit of his cause (in the NYT article, Bono dismisses the word “cause” as too light, preferring the word “emergency” to describe the situation in Africa.) And this means, rather than going off on public rants against those government leaders that might harbor views that contrast with his own, he engages them as people and, more often than not it seems, comes away with their support. What a novel approach.

Bono has met with Republicans (gasp!) such as Jesse Helms, Paul O’Neill, and even Rick Santorum, associations that would get most people black balled from the Hollywood party circuit, and used his celebrity, his conviction, and sometimes a little scripture to win them over. Say what you will about these gentlemen, but they are or were in a position of power and Bono saw correctly that they would serve the purposes of his cause much better as allies than adversaries. This obviously isn’t Michael Moore’s modus operandi, but then again the only hunger Moore is worried about ending is his own, a cause he seems to be pursuing with dogged determination.

If Bono were seeking increased federal assistance in New Orleans, you can be sure he wouldn’t have prefaced his pleas with the suggestion that the vice president go …well, we’ve all heard what was said, no need to repeat it here. In its simplest terms, Bono is adhering to the old saying that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Unfortunately, many people would rather dispense with the vinegar at the expense of their cause, which I guess is what I did by making that crack about Moore although I really have no cause that could be aided by one of his twisted documentaries*.

I admire anyone who will cross party or ideological lines to engage the other side for the common good. That is, after all, how government is supposed to work. Granted our politicians often do a poor job of working together, but perhaps part of the problem is that we don’t often enough ask them to.

*One of the best critiques of Moore's work that I have read was penned by an avowed liberal and a Bush detractor who nonetheless saw fit to slam Moore's methods and question his value to the Democratic party. I had hoped to link to the article, but I can't find it.

Clearing the Air

There’s a minor battle brewing in the comments section of a post I wrote on education. As a matter of clarification, I want to point out that I am not Dan M., one of the combatants. My comments appear under the singular “Dan”, no last initial. Dan M. is a real person, not a doppelganger that I created to incite upheaval among the more liberal visitors to this moderate blog. If that were the case, I would have been more clever in choosing a nom de guerre, cleverness being one of my virtues.

I mention this not to distance myself from the views of Dan M., or of any other commenter, nor do I endorse them. I stand by the views that I express and assume that everyone else can speak for themselves as well. All views are welcome. Civility is aspired to.

Without getting into the specific issue that has stirred up so much rancor, it is interesting to see how two people can interpret an issue from disparate points of view with each believing that theirs is based in reality while the opposite is the result of either subjugation to propaganda or a sheltered life. Saying that the truth lies somewhere in the middle is clichéd, but probably accurate in most cases.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Hey! He's not carnival personnel.

I have an idea for a campaign poster when our governor seeks reelection. A picture of Blagojevich, his head titled rakishly to the side, a barely perceptible smile across his barely perceptible lips. In his hand, a highball glass displayed prominently near his cheek. And splashed atop his photo this simple message: “Be Somebody.” Oh yeah, and don’t forget to put one of those little bamboo umbrellas in his drink. Because while the governor may declare his admiration for Elvis, he actually shares more in common with another poor white boy from Mississippi, Navin R. Johnson.

In the movie “The Jerk”, Steve Martin’s character, Navin, finds himself instantly wealthy and the center of attention only to squander it all away in an attempt to make people like him. The governor seems to find himself heading down the same path, only his dwindling fortune isn’t the profits from a revolutionary advancement in eye care, the opti-grab, it’s the state's coffers.

A report in the SJ-R today tells of the governor getting caught up in the love at an event where he had announced that the state would double funding for HIV/AIDS awareness. Staggering back to the microphone a la James Brown, the governor impulsively decadrupled the largess by pledging another $2 million the state doesn’t have. Or perhaps it wasn’t so impulsive.

The governor also made the front page today with news that he may be the focus of a federal investigation that is looking into a kickback scheme involving the state’s pension fund. Could it be that his spontaneous generosity was a cloying act meant only as a diversion, a $2 million PR campaign to lessen the blow of a potential scandal while recasting his lot with his political base.

No, that’s far too cynical and not at all in keeping with the Navin Johnson analogy that I put forth to start this post. Navin was an innocent, a kind-hearted simpleton that stumbled into a world he thought was calling out to him, only to be crushed by the shallow and rapacious people who awaited.

And we can, if we try, view the governor in this light as well.

A young Serbian-American of average intelligence who struggles through law school, he is abetted by his dream of becoming president. He marries and becomes the puppet of his Machiavellian father-in-law who projects him into governorship where he falls under the influence of political opportunists who persuade him to toss aside his patriarchal ties. Today, it’s all he can do to keep up with the maddening pace of endless news conferences and photo ops, trying to find favor with the electorate through a free flow of state funds in an effort to keep his acceptance numbers up. At this rate, before the next election he’ll be shuffling down the street with his pants around his ankles, a lamp in one hand and a chair and a paddle game in the other.

But perhaps this is too harsh a read.

Obviously, stomping out AIDS is a much more worthy cause than eliminating cat juggling, the injustice that Navin was convinced to finance the fight against by Father Carlos Las Vegas De Cordova. But is it any more worthy a cause than eliminating any other deadly disease? If the governor meets with juvenile cancer victims next week, how can he fail to be moved by the same spirit of concern and significantly up the state’s contribution to cancer treatment and research? But if he does, the state will find itself in an even bigger hole. If he doesn’t, then maybe yesterday's act was just grandstanding after all.

Some would argue that even if the governor isn’t The Jerk, he still might qualify as a jerk. I can’t get a good enough read of him as a person to make that judgment, but he certainly seems incompetent as the state’s top administrator. It’s my hope that when the new phone books arrive next year, there’s a different occupant listed for the mansion.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Don't Mock the Vote

A caller to the Jim Leach Show yesterday declared himself “scared to death” while voicing his opinion on the issue that was up for discussion. What had him shaking through the phone lines wasn’t the government’s obvious inability to quickly respond to a disaster. It wasn’t the prospects on a nuclear-packing Iran. It wasn’t even flashbacks of the Larry King interview with Celine Dion. No, it was a fear of computerized touch-screen voting machines that set his skin to pallor (although I can’t be sure he turned ghost-like, it being radio and me being a bit hyperbolic.)

This new-fangled way of casting a ballot, he reckoned, is ripe for election fixing and that mysterious code that acts as the brain of technology will easily meld to the will of the political scoundrels in our midst.

He was reminded by the host that all elections, in whatever form they take, are subject to corruption but we do manage to soldier on in our pursuit of democracy. I would add that at some point we just have to believe that those entrusted with administering elections aren’t necessarily the cheating miscreants that inhabit our partisan paranoia.

Some people obviously want to go back to the day when "X"s would be scratched on handwritten ballots then stuffed in wooden boxes before being sent over to the county seat so Parson Tucker and Doc Goodall could commence to tallying. But I suspect that what is really at work isn’t a fear of technology so much as distrust of “thine enemy.”

But fear not.

The good thing about the whole Hatfield and McCoy thing going on between the two political parties is that they both see each other as foxes lurking about the chicken coop and they’re just itching to fire some buckshot into anything creeping around all suspicious-like. They’re going to accuse each other of cheating on election day even when everything is on the up-and-up, so I feel pretty comfortable, should somebody actually try something shady, that there will be plenty of whistles blowing and fur flying.

I realize that some underhanded activity takes place during elections. Polling places in some districts are inhospitable to minority voters while others make like Wendy’s and stay open late for their convenience. I figure that as long the sleaze-operatives on both sides stay on top of their game - making sure that the prerequisite number of dead people vote, things like that - then everything should even out in the end. But I also know that they are many who firmly believe that the sleaze oozes solely from the pores of their political opposites while their side maintains a wholesome glow.

It’s clear that we will never again have a national election without accusations of irregularities erupting from the side that came up short. The customary conciliatory phone call from the conceding candidate will soon be replaced with the obligatory filing of lawsuits alleging voting fraud.

But I still feel confident that in the end, the voice of the majority will rule the day. If you have faith in democracy, which you must if you want it to work, then you'll wield your mighty stylus upon the blue computer screen and cast your lot for the candidate of your choice. What's the worst thing that can happen?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It's a Post About Nothing

In an article posted on last week, a former writer from the television series Seinfeld is reported to be extremely put-out that some of the dialogue that he had penned for the show, certain memorable phrases that later became adopted in the public vernacular, is showing up in advertising copy.

At first I sympathized. Had the advertisers wanted to use a song he had written in their spots they would have had to pay him for the rights to his creative output. They are under no such financial obligation to use the words “yada, yada, yada” in a Coors Light ad.

But after careful reflection, I now think that he should be flattered that his words have been so ingrained in our society that they can be used in a context totally unrelated to that in which they first were heard, and still resonate positively with the listener.

I’ve quoted or paraphrased lines from Seinfeld in my writing before, but I don’t do so to pass them off as my own. I’m counting on the reader to recognize the words’ origins in an attempt to create a bond based on a shared experience.

In yesterday’s post, I had originally paraphrased a line from a Steve Earle song in the disclosure statement that appeared at the end. But I feared that too few of the people who read this blog would be familiar with the line and, absent that connection, it would sound pretty stupid. And I don’t need Steve Earle’s help to sound stupid, thank you very much.

Referencing pop culture as a means of furthering interpersonal relationships is a form of communication that has been widely adapted by the male of the species.

When I get together with my high school friends, our conversations are peppered with lines from our favorite movies of the 1980s. It is a form of reminiscing that allows us to express our longing for the camaraderie we shared in a bygone day, without having to express any messy or embarrassing sentiments. It can also be quite perplexing to our younger spouses who wonder why we would be repeating the phrase “this is Chuck reminding Bill to shut up… to shut up…reminding Bill to shut up”* when there is neither a Chuck nor a Bill among us. They are also given to wonder under what circumstances, because it certainly isn’t the present one, could “still got the ol’ tagger on it”** be as amusing as we seem to find it.

It’s not surprising that an advertiser would try to capitalize on the emotion that can be stirred through a well-known point of reference in pop culture in order to transfer that good feeling to their product. And in the form that it usually takes in these instances, snippets of dialogue or lyrics, it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of plagiarism or infringement.

As someone who enjoys writing and spends a good deal of time doing so, I always aspire to turn a phrase or come up with a metaphor that is totally my own creation. I may succeed at times, but even when I think that I’ve artfully penned something that it is bound in quintessence and totally my own, chances are that one of those million monkeys that have been made to indiscriminately pound away on typewriters has already claimed authorship. Or Little Richard (“Blogging? You know who was doing that first. Whoooo!!!”)***

Perhaps the bigger joy from writing, however, is discovering a new word or phrase that sings with meaning and then being able to incorporate it into my own work.

Whenever I want to speak ill of someone who lacks social grace, I can describe him, thanks to P.G. Wodehouse, by using the delightful slight “ill-bred bounder.” Or if it’s an unwholesome woman, an “ill-bred harpy.”

The Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn introduced me to the flowery, and to my ear somewhat sarcastic, phrase “it has come to a pretty pass” to describe those times when life happens upon a difficult juncture.

There is no need to credit these writers in my work because they too are simply passing them along, albeit in a style more skillfull than most, for our enjoyment.

As much as I detest the inbred unoriginality that causes some writers to blanket their work with tired clichés (the phrase “no brainer” should be stricken from the printed page as if it were the most vulgar of profanities), I also have to recognize that there isn’t a lot of originality left to be had. This extends to all forms of art.

When I heard Pearl Jam perform their song “Given to Fly” this weekend as part of the ReAct Now relief campaign, I thought the same thing that I thought the first time I heard the song: they lifted that melody from Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.****


*Night Shift

**This is Spinal Tap

***Barry Sobel


Monday, September 12, 2005

Leave No Tax Dollar Behind

Back in the early 1990s, the Chicago Tribune Magazine published a story on a suburban high school principal who had retired from one of the wealthiest public high schools in the nation and subsequently took a job as an English teacher and administrator at an inner-city Catholic high school whose students were predominately African-American. It was a great piece of reporting and the story it told was so enlightening that I wish that I had saved the magazine.

The former principal, a man named Geer I believe, told of an incident in which the brightest student in his English class, a young man who had already been accepted at Princeton, had stopped turning in his assignments and had become almost completely unresponsive in class. He risked failing the class. Geer was dumbfounded by this unexpected decline in performance, but when he related the situation to his colleagues, they were disappointed but not surprised.

Those teachers who had worked with inner-city kids for years knew well the phenomenon that plagued even the brightest of students. These kids are taught two things in their neighborhoods that teachers had to constantly battle: school is for white people and you can’t escape the ghetto. And even those kids who rebel against the first notion, as the student mentioned here did by excelling at school, often succumb to the second just as they are about to break free.

I thought of this article as I was reading the SJ-R’s excellent two-part series on Michelle Cana, a teacher at Harvard Park School, as she prepared her students to take the Illinois State Achievement Tests. In it, we learn that the same conceits that caused a high school student in Chicago to give up an Ivy League education is also causing third-graders in Springfield to turn their backs on education as well. Which makes me wonder if we know where the real battle needs to be fought to improve education in this country?

Economists conducted regression analysis on mounds of data collected by the U.S. Department of Education in the late 1990s. What they found was that success in school wasn’t determined by modern classrooms, up-to-date text books, or even having teachers as dedicated as Cano. Rather, one of the most significant factors they found to predict a child’s chances at educational success is the educational level of their parents or parent (even a two-parent family wasn’t found to be a significant factor.) This was found to be true regardless of race. Those parents who had a higher level of education, this implied, value education more and motivate their children to do better in school.

If it’s true that social influences, both at home and in the community, are the determining factors for a child’s success, then it’s no wonder that the current practice of simply demanding more funding for schools has proven to be ineffective. Newer schools, higher teacher salaries, more resources, these all may be needed in some cases, but not at the expense of finding a solution to help children escape the web of low expectations and indifference towards schooling that they have been born into.

I don’t think that the solution is to put teachers such as Cano under the type of pressure she and her students endured last year in preparing for the standardized test, although I do think that teachers and schools both need to be subject to some sort of performance review. I do think that while the government considers fairer ways to generate revenues for schools, such as a reduced reliance on property taxes, they also need to subject that which is being funding to performance reviews to make sure that it is making a positive difference and not simply appeasing the teachers' unions.

(Full disclosure: My children attend parochial schools. But as a taxpayer in good standing I reserve the right to spout off on public education.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

Just because you're paranoid; Don't mean they're not after you.

According to a report in the SJ-R, the city is considering erecting four video cameras downtown to curb some of the lawlessness that occurs after-hours. I’m not sure if the extent of the problem warrants such action, there seems to be some difference of opinion, but if it is deemed significant then this seems to be a reasonable solution.

The reaction to this proposal should be lively with many personal freedom activists taking to their bullhorns on talk radio and the editorial pages. I’ve heard their litany of complaints and dire warnings before and don’t find them the least bit persuasive.

If a person chucks a bottle through a plate glass window and is seen by police or is reported by a citizen, that person is a vandal. Am I to believe if that same person was clever enough to look both ways to see if the coast is clear before letting fly, but is then caught on camera, that person is now a fourth amendment adherent? A criminal is a criminal whether caught in the act by the police, surveillance cameras, or the GPS devices that will secretly be implanted behind everyone’s ear lobes by 2010 (oops, I wasn’t supposed to mention that. My bad.)

Those that have the deepest seeded fears of surveillance cameras seem to overstate their importance in society. To those: Yes, your family and friends love you and are interested in your daily activities, but no one else really cares. They’re certainly not eying you suspiciously, wondering if that tome you're toting in the Prairie Archives bag is some sort of anti-government manifesto. You won’t unwittingly become a character in a reality television series. Still shots of you picking your nose won’t wind up on billboards. And the government won’t be building a case against you as a subversive if the camera catches you exiting whatever downtown watering hole is currently serving as the backroom meeting place of the Springfield branch of the communist party. The slippery slope may be alive in theory, but your sliding down it is a figment of an overworked imagination.

London is reported to have over 500,000 surveillance cameras and a person about in public there can expect to be filmed upwards of 300 times a day. Yet it hasn’t resulted in an Orweillian nightmare for its people; it has simply pushed the thugs and cut-throats deeper into the darkest recesses of the city. That’s good. They less space they have to operate, the better.

As I’ve state here before, I’m a proponent of using cameras to cast a watchful eye at busy intersections where many treat red lights as a personal affront to their right to sleep-in and still get to work on time. If they can also be used to capture on tape the criminal antics of drunken revelers, where’s the downside? I only wish that we could get a picture of their reaction when the ticket arrives in the mail or the police arrive with the warrant.

More Photo-Ops

One of the many things that I despise about politics is the transparent photo ops that pols rabidly pursue so that they have some dramatic shots to use in their campaign materials. They all end looking completely staged and ridiculous. Remember Bush in the flight suit and Dukakis in the tank?

That said, if the picture on the front page of today’s SJ-R ends up in a brochure for Chuck Redpath when he runs for the 99th District House seat next year, then he deserves all of the goodwill and positive feelings that it can evoke in voters. I wouldn’t even be put off if I found out that he hired Sean Penn’s personal photographer, after the talented actor’s rescue dinghy sprung a leak, to shoot a photo documentary of his entire stay.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Pointless Blather on BBQ

Food is riding a high in our culture right now. Chefs are celebrities. Consumers are connoisseurs. And dining out is primetime entertainment.

The media has picked-up on society’s love of food and feeds our seemingly insatiable appetite for food-related content. As is usually the case when a craze sweeps the country, certain participants are singled out for maximum exposure by the media. Unfortunately, they seem to bask in the spotlight a little too long, leaving them overdone and eventually, just plain over. I speak here not of the oddly compelling but ultimately annoying Emeril, or of the should-be-annoying but too darn adorable Rachel Ray. No the foodie whose reach has exceeded its taste, whose popularity has risen to idolatry, is known primarily by its initials – B.B.Q.

Sure BBQ can be delicious. Anyone who can serve it up right has a right to be proud. But can’t the same be said for pizza, fried chicken, and yellow-fin tuna served sashimi style? So why is it that the Food Channel devotes so many hours exclusively to BBQ’s honor? Why do regional squabbles erupt over vinegar-based versus tomato-based sauces? And why are we expected to bow to the grill masters who venture out once a weekend when the cooks in the kitchen are dishing out delectables and putting in regular hours?

There is a cult of BBQ that goes beyond whatever zesty, smoky slab of meat is eventually plated. BBQ definitely has blue collar appeal; it requires a patience that doesn’t play to the upscale crowd who crave instant-gratification. While those creating dishes in bistros may consider themselves artists working with a bountiful palette of flavors and textures, the cook tending the smoker is a craftsman, fine-tuning and tweaking their way towards succulence.

The long hours required to properly prepare ribs or brisket would seem to appeal to those who prefer solitude - just a man, some embers, and a fatted calf. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, it attracts an extremely social carnivore. One that is typically boisterous and ultra competitive. It’s this latter trait that is largely responsible for its popularity. BBQers are forever throwing down the gauntlet to see who reigns supreme and there is always a willing throng of spectators waiting to enjoy the spoils of the competition.

The SJ-R’s Kathy Rem wrote today of a BBQ cook-off held in conjunction with the recent downtown Blue’s festival. Memphis seems to be in a constant state of BBQ one-upsmanship. In fact, you can’t swing a dead sow anywhere in the South without hitting some self-proclaimed BBQ king walking around with a cedar chip on his shoulder. In all, BBQers will square-off at the drop of a match.

The combination of cooking and competition has allowed BBQ to capture two of the largest demographics in the country, which contributes greatly to its popularity. By moving the cooking from the backyard into the parking lot, it creates a much more natural environ for the NFL crowd by assuming a tailgating atmosphere. The NASCAR set is drawn because it allows them to display their caring and nurturing side, a good rub can only come from the heart, while at the same time appealing to their Type A personalities by turning slow-smoked cookery into hard-charging competition. In both cases, it also provides them ample time for drinking.

The BBQers themselves are passionate about their pursuit and wear their rib tips on their sleeves. Their customized grills are meant to intimidate, and perhaps compensate. They continue to up the ante in competition with the increasingly comical and often times risqué names they bestow upon their sauces (Slap My Ass and Call Me Sally?). Some have taken to wearing silly hats while others lead their crews in organized cheers. And it's all become too much.

Some may turn their noses up at BBQ and its unrefined sidekicks: coleslaw, baked beans, and the wet wipe. I don’t share that sentiment; I’m just getting tired of hearing about it. Let’s go ahead and crown someone the king or queen of BBQ and let them reign over the nation for five or ten years. Then BBQ can return to the backyard where it belongs and we no longer have to hear extensive dissertations praising aromatic wood smoke and vilifying the gas grill*.

And enough with the secret recipes already. They're all just basically a mix of ketchup and brown sugar aren't they?

*Pure blasphemy to Hank Hill

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

More Sandbagging, Less Flamethrowing

In 1994, the Kansai International Airport in Japan was opened. What’s unique about this particular airport is that it was built in Osaka Bay, on a man-made island of landfill almost 4 km from shore. While it is a marvel of engineering, it’s just one example of how man has become increasingly proficient at shaping nature to serve our need. As the events in New Orleans have shown us, however, nature isn’t ruled by the will of man and with a force that is both awesome and devastating, it will eventually revert to its original form.

There are many understandable reactions when nature snaps back and slaps us in the face: humility at its awesome power, sadness over the death and destruction left in its wake, and resolve to pick up the pieces and to once again find the joy in life. A less understandable reaction, one that is born both of arrogance and pettiness, is hatred. Unfortunately for some, in trying to make sense of a tragedy that is firmly rooted in the laws of nature, the desire to direct blame and inflict political damage is a every bit as strong of force as a Category 5 hurricane.

Today's editorial page in the SJ-R was filled with letters that prove the partisan hostility in this country knows no bounds. No indiscretion is too small to not warrant condemnation. No mistake or miscalculation is ever made that wasn’t the result of a malicious intent. And no tragedy has ever befallen that isn’t in someway tied to the lack of intelligence, corporate interests, loose morals, or indecisiveness of whoever is sitting in office and happens to have the wrong letter next to his name. While tragedy carries with it an opportunity to come together for the common good, some insist on using it to create a deeper divide.

While the political climate in this country continues to degenerate, it is all the more amazing when our leaders are able to overcome their differences and work together. That George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton can put aside any past animosity to join in a common appeal for assistance is a testament to their sense of decency and genuine concern. Perhaps they are only allowed to do so because, as retired statesmen, they are no longer beholden to the next election cycle. But that too is an indictment on our two-party system. Our leaders are elected to serve, that don’t serve to get re-elected. And as citizens we should encourage them to work together and not feed the beast by encouraging their antagonistic ways with our own backbiting behavior.

That it is not to say that we should shrug our shoulders at whatever failings may have occurred both in preparation for or response to Katrina. It seems obvious that terrific mistakes were made at all levels of government, all the way up to the president. But these mistakes should be identified with an eye towards preventing them in the future. What purpose does is serve, during a time when everyone should unite, to throw them about like daggers in hopes of piercing someone who is assumed to lack your own compassion? There will be a time to deal with incompetence, now is the time to deal with tragedy.

Yes, experts have warned that New Orleans would be vulnerable to such destruction as the result of a strong hurricane. But would those levies had been any higher if John Kerry were in office and we were out of Iraq? Would they have held up better if Katrina had struck in 1995 rather than 2005? I guess we will never know, but to assume that they would have is more partisan fanstasy than critical analysis. If this were 1995, the only thing that we can be sure would have played out differently is that conservatives would have branded Katrina a hurricane scorned by that vile and philandering Clinton.

Experts have also warned that planet earth could be completely decimated by a giant asteroid. And should that fateful day occur, we can be sure that somebody somewhere will expend their final few moments as a member of a soon-to-be-extinct species to pen a letter-to-the-editor about that idiot in the White House.

Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune has a good analysis of this issue.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Cheap Shots and Cheatin' Hearts

Since my posts this week have focused on the public relations' aspects of stories currently receiving media attention, I thought I would continue in that vein to close out the week.

CWLP proposed a 33 percent electric rate hike yesterday, news that warranted front page coverage in the SJ-R. I’m not sure; maybe the timing of the announcement was dictated by the city council agenda. Perhaps they had planned to come out with the proposal weeks ago, but decided to keep it under wraps until they could weather the mild storm stirred up by the story of Todd Renfrow’s spectacular new desk. Whatever the case, I hope that it did occur to someone involved that announcing a major energy rate increase amidst exploding gas prices is not a good way to win public support for your proposal. If they could have waited, even another week, it may have taken some of the sting off of the news.

Based on the article and comments made by Renfrow and CWLP’s Chief Utilities Engineer Jay Bartlett on AM Springfield this morning, it seems that the rate hike is in everyone's best interest. And we can’t really feel too put upon, not when we see the devastation that the residents of New Orleans and other cities ravaged by the hurricane are enduring. But still, bearers of bad news must be sensitive to the current news climate. Unfortunately, for many of us, CWLP’s news was delivered like a chop to the back of the neck after the corner gas station had us doubled over with a blow to the solar plexus.

Lincoln Land Community College is also plagued by some PR problems, although they can hardly be criticized for not anticipating their latest hit, the unexpected resignation of recently hired interim president, John Anderson.

The bigger PR problem LLCC must correct is that their relationships with presidents are starting to sound like a story in a bad country and western song. The school keeps falling for these crooked, unfaithful, and restless men, only to find itself heartbroken and alone yet again. Lord, they’ve been done wrong one too many times. You know it’s bad when even Jack Daniels lets you down. For the kids’ sake, they need to change their ways and hookup with a decent and faithful president before autumn comes and their comeliness fades.