Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Last Day of The Last Year of the First Decade

Here we are on December 31, 2009. A Thursday night, and from all indications tonight is going to slink away quietly, tail tucked between its legs, as if it were somehow sorry or embarrassed for what had gone on before on its watch.

Yes, we did end the year with a Christmas Day terrorist scare. A Nigerian man got on a Northwest Airlines plane in Schipol Airport, Amsterdam, with explosives in his underwear. I suppose that was only a natural progression from the rectum bomb that nearly took out a Saudi Arabian prince earlier this year, but just how delusional to you have to be to place dangerous chemicals next to your naughty bits? I don't think that this whole suicide bomber thing was properly explained to that dimwit. I mean, if you do blow your junk off, exactly what are you going to do with the 70 virgins that are supposedly waiting for you on the other side? Luckily for everyone, the bomb did not ignite, and amazingly this Al Qaeda group somewhere claimed credit for the failed bombing and even made some boastful comment about building the "sophisticated detonator." Well I guess it was too "sophisticated" to actually "work," better check that out a little more next time.

And there will be a next time, unfortunately. What this failed attempt did show is that the much-ballyhooed post-911 air travel security system has more than a few gaping holes. That Nigerian man should never had had a visa or been allowed to board, there were plenty of indications of his intent. Information was not shared, conclusions were not drawn and preemptive actions were not taken. Next time, we might not be so lucky.

This hasn't been the best of years; so many depressing, disappointing things happened. Sarah Palin refuses to go away, just like the worst case of irritable bowel syndrome you could imagine. So many people who should know better just continue to say and do the most outrageously stupid, destructive and embarrassing things possible. Dick Cheney continues to be one of the scariest and most evil people who used to be alive. Like they say, the good die young but evil is forever. If Cheney had his way the nuclear bombs would be falling from the sky like raindrops in Seattle and he would be King of Necrotopia forever.

Did anything good at all happen this year? I suppose we can say the fact that we made it through this year and are still around to gripe and moan about it is something good. But this has been a very difficult year to get through for a lot of people, including me. The job situation is still horrendously bad, with unemployment at 10%. Property values are still in the toilet, foreclosures still raging. The U.S. economy is showing some meager signs of recovery but is still very, very sick, and can relapse at any time. Greed and avarice continue unabated. There have been a number of news stories indicating that year-end bonuses on Wall Street are going to be as outrageous as ever, almost as if the financial meltdown earlier this year was just an unpleasant fever dream, the kind you get from eating tainted lobster or bad caviar or something.

This year more than ever, stupidity reigned in this country. Whether it was the "balloon boy" supposedly drifting across the Colorado landscape in a silver spaceship, or former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich doing and saying the dumbest things he could possibly think of, or Kanye West creating a cultural firestorm by stomping all over Taylor Swift's first American Music Award, or boring Barbie doll Carrie Prejean posing as some conservative Christian pillar of morality passing judgment on the marital arrangements of others while sitting on a homemade sex tape, it does seem like the idiots are really taking over this country. But there were little touches of welcome relief, such as Susan Boyle's stunning debut on a British talent show, when a studio audience (and later the world) morphed from cynical derision to enraptured adoration in the time it took her to sing the words, "I dreamed a dream of times gone by...." or the surprising success of Lady Gaga, who is a fairly good singer and musician once you get past all the junior-college-art-class costumes and posturing. She seems like what would happen if Icelandic pop star Bjork dyed her hair platinum blonde and got a hold of some bad drugs.

I may or may not be awake when the clock strikes midnight tonight. If I am I'm sure I'll be serenaded by the sound of automatic weapons fire coming from the cheap apartment complexes to the south of me. Just another indication that in spite of all my deepest, most sincere wishes and prayers, we will still have to deal with stupid people next year. Is there any hope for 2010 to be any better than 2009? It's so hard to judge at this point. I remember on January 1, 2009, no one was holding out any hope that the year would be any good. And it certainly lived down to our expectations. Maybe we should try the opposite approach, and start thinking good thoughts about 2010. Perhaps if we do things will work out and the year will return prosperity, security and hope to everyone. I wish that does happen, but just in case, I'm going to start working on Plan B tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Worst-of List for 2009 (Part 2)

Whereas I get personal and start to name names. There is so much material here, but I promise there will not be a Worst-of List, Part 3.

Asshole of the Year: Sarah Palin
Whether it's ridiculous, preposterous concepts such as "death panels" bubbling up from the depths of her rancid little cesspool of a mind, or her baffling bail-out from the governorship of her state, or her eternally annoying bleating every time she gets in front of a microphone, Sarah Palin continues to inexplicably occupy a prominent place on the political/pop culture scene far out of proportion to any actual value her life has. Her very existence is depressing enough, but what it also shows us is the huge number of incredibly stupid, ignorant people in this nation who think that she is "speaking for them." They seem to have the impression that Palin is "real" but don't realize that every single word that comes out of her mouth and everything she does is scripted down to the finest detail by her conservative puppet-masters/handlers in the Republican party. Sarah Palin is the ultimate phony, a ventriloquist dummy with schoolteacher glasses who probably has never had a single coherent thought of her own in her whole life. Stupid people attract other stupid people, a sad fact of life that happens everywhere she goes. How pathetic for this country.

Asshole of the Decade: George W. Bush
There truly aren't enough bad things in the English language to say about George W. Bush, so I'm not even going to waste (much) space rehashing them. The eight long horrible years of his two presidential terms were truly a Dark Age of American politics. On September 11, 2001, as the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York (and, by extension, the American way of life we all grew up with) crumbled, Bush sat in a classroom, paralyzed by his own stupidity, reading a story to a group of children. He completely fabricated the assertion that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and used it to get the U.S. in a bloody quagmire of a war, for which we will be paying all manner of consequences for generations. He continually and consistently changed the tax structure to benefit the super-wealthy. Early on he established himself as a very hands-off, detached president who regarded his duties in the Oval Office as a petty annoyance he had to deal with between vacations. He used every opportunity to blur the separation of church and state, and allowed every corporate special-interest and lobbying group to have unfettered access to the highest levels of government. But as horrible and loathsome as Bush is, the American voter deserves the lion's share of blame for the galaxy-class abomination that was President George W. Bush. They voted him into office twice, and they deserve every awful thing that happens to this country in the future. Trouble is, the rest of us who voted against this empty-headed simpleton have to pay for it, too.
Runner-up: Dick Cheney (Veep of the Living Dead)

Worst Political Pundit: Bill O'Reilly
Loud, shrill, bullying, ignorant, duplicitous, venal, mean-spirited, lying, blustering, obnoxious, cowardly, hypocritical. And these are his good qualities. Did I also mention batshit-crazy?
Runners-Up: Sean Hannity, just about anyone on the Fox Noise Channel

Most Loathsome Politician: Joe Lieberman
There is something so incredibly despicable, smarmy and disgusting about Lieberman, senator from Connecticut. Sure there are plenty of vile Republican members of Congress who deserve to be despised, but at least they wear their disgustingness out in the open. Formerly a Democrat, Lieberman decided to go Independent when it looked like he was going to lose a primary election, and has been skipping over to the Republican side of the political fence regularly, as circumstances suit him. Either he is a brilliant political tactician expertly playing both sides against the other, or he is the ultimate hypocrite, crassly doing whatever he needs to do to get people to pay attention to him. It is truly symptomatic of how corrupt and broken our political system is that he was afforded such power in the recent health care debate. Every second that he is alive is a second squandered.
Runners-Up: Michelle Bachmann, Orrin Hatch, Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, Mick Huckabee, oh God, it just goes on and on

Most Loathsome Person of the Decade, and maybe on Earth: Rush Limbaugh
Part ultra-obnoxious grade-school bully, part Jabba the Hutt in a cheap suit, this gigantic, quivering mass of flab bloviates for hours a day, spreading toxic political flatulence far and wide with his radio program. His inexplicably vast audience, who call themselves "dittoheads," - apparently without a hint of understanding the irony - willingly accept and believe every fetid dollop of idiocy this bloated, drug-addicted puddle of goo spoon-feeds them. Everyday, in many ways, he makes America stupider and stupider.
Runners-Up: Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Gary Bauer, at least 100 members of Congress

Best Impression of a Meteorite: Tiger Woods
A meteorite is something that falls from a great height, blazes out in brilliant self-destruction and crashes to earth. That pretty much describes Tiger Woods, who must be hating life a lot right now. Let's review: here is a guy who seeming had everything: universally acknowledged as the greatest golfer who ever lived, extremely lucrative endorsement deals, multimillion-dollar home and yacht, worldwide fame, a gorgeous Swedish wife and two cute dogs. Also a couple of kids, but whatever. So what do you do when you have all that? Take a lot of Ambien and have hazy, druggy sex with a smorgasbord of "noctural hospitality hostesses", a.k.a. Las Vegas skanks. Huh??? WTF, seriously? Can he possibly be that stupid? He has it all but is still not satisfied. He deserves everything that happens to him and I hope Elin bleeds him dry.

Most Awful Occurrence of the Year: Nothing yet, but there are still 8 days to go. After all, a monstrous tsunami or earthquake can always occur with no warning.

Most Awful Occurrence of the Decade: September 11, 2001
The date that is burned on all of our memories, the day that the life of every American, and in fact the lives of everyone in the world, changed irreversibly. Eight years past, the horror of the day is still pretty much undiminished and unresolved. We've come to expect long lines at airports, removing our shoes to be searched for explosives, and the uncomfortable thought that is always in the back of everyone's minds: when will the next terrorism event happen? Even the "good old days" of the 1990's seem like a world away. In fact they are, and the world we live in now is a much more dangerous place.

Douchebag of the Year: Jon Gosselin
The male half of the Parenting Team of the Year on the inexplicably popular reality show Jon and Kate Plus Eight always seemed to be portrayed as a pudgy, dimwitted doormat, regularly emasculated by his vicious harpy of a wife in front of the children and an audience of millions. Somewhere along the line he sort of got a clue and bailed on the show and his family. Once free of the stifling, abusive tyranny of his marriage, Gosselin went wild and was spotted at every dubious party and media event he could possibly cram into his calendar, while Kate stayed at home sharpening her hair and making other people shovel out tons of soiled diapers. The fact that he was photographed unabashedly slobbering over a series of disgusting, classless media whores only served to make his snarling wife look like the victim. If anyone makes an allegation of how gay marriage would destroy and debase the institution of matrimony in this country, they need only be directed to the Gosselins as the true source of disrespect and debasement.

Douchebag of the Decade: Girls Gone Wild producer Joe Francis
Here we have American capitalism at its finest - an "entrepreneur" who builds a hugely profitable empire on videotaping drunk, moronic college girls cavorting around with no tops. That's it - no subtlety involved here. Whores and skanks with their boobies flopping around. I've never seen a GGW video and make all possible efforts to avoid them, but wouldn't that get really boring after about two minutes? Anyhow, Francis has the spongy, round face everyone would love to punch and a Pillsbury doughboy body that just begs for a good butt-kicking. I guess the last I heard of him he was in jail for something, where he probably will never get to see who his cellmate is since he will always be facing the other direction.

Stupidest People of the Year: Birthers and Teabaggers
Barack Obama's election and inauguration as the first African-American president so shocked and angered lots of (racist) voters in this country that for a while they were stunned into mute disbelief. They woke up and got their bearings midyear, going batshit crazy with some wild conspiracy theory that Obama wasn't an American citizen and therefore could not be President. It didn't matter one whit that all their claims and forged documents were universally, categorically and affirmatively refuted - they were sure they were right. And a lot of them still believe they are as they and their "movement" mercifully fade into the background noise of idiocy that makes up a lot of the socio-political climate of this country. The teabaggers were on display everywhere this summer, from throwing tantrums at town-hall meetings to lugging around hilariously misspelled or misconceived signs at the "Voter Values Summit" in Washington, of which my favorite was the "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare" sign brandished by a senior citizen. And anyone who is aware of the "other meaning" of the term "teabagging" found it difficult to not laugh and gag at the same time when someone reported on television that "senior citizens were teabagging on the streets of Washington."
Runners-Up: "Intelligent Design" advocates

Stupidest People of the Decade: Republicans
Republicans are always on either the stupid side of major issues (global warming, evolution, health care, financial reform, foreign policy, tax reform) or the evil, hateful side of major issues (gay marriage, church/state separation, clean air/water issues, abortion, coal/oil policies, etc., etc.). They claim to be in the "party of Lincoln" but Old Abe is spinning in his grave like a runaway food blender every single time one of them opens their mouth. Republicans have forged an unholy, vile and extremely cynical alliance with the fundamentalists and they, despite all their claims to being "Christian," continue to spread racism, homophobia and discrimination far and wide across the world. As far as I'm concerned, there is absolutely nothing of any merit or value in the Republican party AT ALL and I could not disagree with them more vehemently on nearly everything.

That's it, I'm done. Please, 2010, do better than this past year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Worst-Of List for 2009 (Part 1)

My previous list, the Best of 2009, was fun to write but it was kind of difficult to come up with. The Worst of 2009 List, on the other hand, practically wrote itself in an embarrassment-of-riches kind of way. There was absolutely no shortage of stupidity, awful behavior and downright lunacy in this past year, and the following barely scratches the surface:

Most Annoying Social Trend: Tweeting/Texting/Sexting
There seems to be a concerted effort to make the spoken word obsolete, as if it's too much trouble to deal with or something. Concurrently, there seems to be a real appetite for taking the minute details of one's everyday existence and throwing them up on a global stage for everyone to see. This is narcissism and self-absorption on a level never before witnessed in history. The question is, why? I never imagined typing could be easier than just speaking but apparently it is, given the popularity of texting and tweeting. I have seen people sitting in adjacent rooms texting each other, because presumably getting up and walking to the next room to tell someone something is now considered gauche. And sexting - sending revealing/obscene pictures of yourself via cellphone - how insane is that? Once those pics get released into cyberspace they live forever and can gain a world-wide audience faster than you can sneeze. Get a grip, kids.

Dumbest Socio-Political Trend: Can't Keep It In Your Pants
Just what is it with male public figures that cause them to screw up in the most ridiculous, embarrassing way possible - getting caught with their pants down in tawdry sex scandals? Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina told his staff he was going hiking in the Appalachians when he was really skipping down to Argentina to canoodle with his alleged soul-mate. Creepy one-time presidential candidate John Edwards gave up his political aspirations along with any shred of dignity he might have had by messing around with a female videographer. Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) was busted doing something icky with a woman and his family tried to pay her hush money to keep her yap shut. Luckily, she didn't. The list goes on and on. Why do these repulsive old farts think they can play around like they're eighteen years old or something? Unfortunately there is no shortage of morality-free skanks for whom public whoring is an amusing pastime, and the combination of the two means that there will be many more stomach-churning hookups to endure for the foreseeable future.

Worst TV show of the Year: Jersey Shore
This is a very late entry into the tsunami of drivel that regularly pours out of our sets, but it has rocketed to the front of the pack and left everything else far behind in its odoriferous wake. Jersey Shore is part reality show/part weird, post-apocalyptic minstrel show which chronicles the astonishingly pointless and completely delusional lives of a group of twenty-somethings inhabiting a vacation house in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. They spend their days scantily clad bickering like mildly retarded six-year-olds and dealing with manufactured crises like running out of hair gel, and their nights trolling from night club to sleazy night club getting drunk and grinding up against one another. Referring to themselves as "guidos" and "guidettes" (which makes me really unhappy because my last name is "Guida" and I'm constantly being mistaken for Italian even though I'm Polish) they have drawn the ire of Italian-American groups who are rightfully embarrassed by their stereotypical buffoonery, but in truth anyone who claims to be a member of the human race should be profoundly mortified by their swinish, completely classless lives. America in particular and the world in general has reason to be deeply worried should any of these dimwitted pinheads start reproducing.

BONUS! Worst Show of the Decade: American Idol
AI has been around for, oh I don't know, fifty or sixty years now. Maybe it only seems that way, but what started out as an innocuous, rather unimaginative talent contest has metastasized into a cultural phenomenon, commanding stratospheric television ratings and becoming the centerpiece of the Fox TV network schedule (irony intended). Every year it's the same thing - the audition shows where severely mentally disturbed people display their total lack of talent to a nationwide audience and then lose their shit in a very public way when the truth hits them like getting smacked in the face with a dead fish. It's actually more than a little upsetting when they show you one of their "pity cases," someone who is trapped in a very bleak, dead-end life and is betting everything on this show turning them into a star when there is no chance in hell of that ever happening. Then we move on to the talent contest itself and the seemingly endless series of "semi-finals" when America votes on their favorites. Most of the voting is done by tween-girls in the Midwest who have fully harnessed the power of their ADHD for speed-dialing, and it's no surprise at all they choose "winners" such as the mayonnaise-on-white-bread Kris Allen or the annoying, embarrassing Taylor Hicks, but also near-winners like the deeply horrifying freak of nature that was Sanjaya Malakar. As for the so-called "judges" of this hot mess of a show we were regularly treated to the acerbic, sarcastic stylings of Simon Cowell, the often hilarious/more often incomprehensible ditherings of drug-addled Paula Abdul and also the enduring mystery of why Randy Jackson is even on this show at all. After all this time there may be some cracks appearing in the AI juggernaut and some long-time judges either are or may be soon exiting, most notably Abdul who was memorable in a watching-a-drunk-fall-down kind of slapstick way. If you have no idea what I'm writing about and don't know who any of these people are, consider yourself extremely lucky and know that I would gladly give up five years of my life if I could make the same claims.

False Alarm of the Year That Everyone Fell For: H1N1 Flu
Earlier this year we were all warned in the direst terms that doom is surely coming to us this fall, and everything we know of would be devastated by the H1N1 virus, a.k.a. swine flu. Nearly every day the news programs were beating the catastrophe drum and throwing out the "pandemic" card. I'm pretty sure most people don't know what a pandemic is, all they know is that it's worse than an epidemic because... well, it just is. Breathlessly the media gave us daily updates of the government's efforts to produce enough vaccine and told us in grave tones that there would not be enough! Panic, anybody? I don't know if they were trying to distract us all from the imploding financial mess, but all their gruesome threats have yet to pan out. Maybe we can consider ourselves lucky, for once.

Real Alarm of the Year That Everyone Is Ignoring: Global Warming
The evidence for global warming is everywhere, one needs only to look at such disparate locations as the polar regions and Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. The Arctic ice fields are retreating at an alarming rate, and scientists predict the north pole area will be free of ice in the summertime sometime in the next decade, pushing the polar bears to the edge of extinction. Satellites in the southern hemisphere have been tracking an iceberg several times the size of Manhattan which broke off from the Antarctic ice sheet and was cruising past Tasmania. The glaciers on the top of Kilimanjaro are rapidly shrinking and it's all but certain they will disappear in 10 years, depriving the surrounding farms and settlements of a critical water supply. And what are Congressional "leaders" doing in this country instead of coming up with an energy policy to combat the warming? They are having teabag rallies and hollering about how someone is trying to take their guns away from them and encouraging their simple-minded followers to throw tantrums at town-hall meetings. They are so good at doing the ostrich-head-in-the-sand bit, I hope that helps whenever things really go to hell and their children and grandchildren have to find another planet to live on.

More Worst Of 2009 in Part 2.....

Friday, December 18, 2009

Best-Of List for 2009

We're going to be hit with a plethora of year-end lists over the next couple of weeks, and I am so getting on that train. I love lists and as far as I'm concerned the snarkier the better. Here then is my list of The Best of 2009, with the added bonus of some Best of the Decade nominees:

Best Television Show of the Year: Battlestar Galactica
For four seasons we followed the plight of the RTF (rag-tag fleet) as they fled their obliterated homeworlds and desperately searched for the mythical planet Earth, promised in their sacred scriptures. Relentlessly badgered by the Cylons, a race of robots the humans created and who ultimately turned against them, it seemed they could not catch a break anywhere. How can you battle an enemy who looks like you, talks like you, and to whom death is meaningless? Fact is, you can't, and you have to eventually ally with them and seek some sort of uneasy co-existence. Battlestar was not-to-be-missed television viewing for me, and was an amazing experience.
Runners-up: True Blood, Dexter, Real Time with Bill Maher, Sons of Anarchy

BONUS! Best Television Show of the Decade: Battlestar Galactica

Most Missed Television Program of the Year: The Shield
The Shield ended its six-season run this past spring, and what a run it was. Always gritty and uncompromising, it provided a fearless and unflinching look at the Machiavellian world of conflicted, good-cop/bad-cop Vic Mackey and his team of off-the-radar semi-vigilante detectives, who regularly employed highly illegal and immoral means to promote legality and morality. Backed up by great writing and an incredible cast, it was often hard to watch, as when one of the team deliberately murders another team member, but I could not look away. Awesome storytelling.

BONUS! Most Missed Television Program of the Decade: The Sopranos
This long-running, highly acclaimed HBO drama had everything: batshit-crazy mobsters, murders, mayhem, beatings, one-legged Russian floozies, the Bada Bing strip club, tacky furniture, spoiled screwed-up children, ducklings, baked ziti, lasagna - everything that makes life worthwhile. And for a couple of years HBO had an unbeatable Sunday night line-up of an hour of Sopranos followed by an hour of Six Feet Under, another fantastic show. That was the heyday of HBO and they haven't matched it since.
Runner-Up: Six Feet Under

Best Rock Band of the Year: U2
They could have just rested on their laurels and coasted through an interminable series of nostalgia concerts ("The Dinosaurs of Rock!") but instead U2 never stopped searching for barriers to break and higher goals to seek. They have continually produced relevant, exciting music and their stage shows have pushed the envelope of live entertainment. They are a very rare combination of talent and integrity. Long may they rock.

BONUS! Best Rock Band of the Decade: The Beatles
Decades after the band had broken up and even after losing two of their original members, the Beatles are still as relevant as they have always been. Their astonishing catalog of music defined an entire era and for many boomers, including me, they provided the soundtrack for a large portion of our lives. Now being introduced to an entire new generation of fans, it's easy to see that they will live up to the somewhat-hackneyed prediction that "people will be listening to their music 50 years from now." I really believe that people will.

Most Ingenious Movie Crisis: Angels and Demons
This flick had the Vatican nearly destroyed by antimatter. Brilliant! I am so there!

Most Unexpectedly Good Movie: The Wrestler
I happen to catch The Wrestler on HBO one night. I have never been a fan of Mickey Rourke but I have to say I was very impressed with his portrayal of an over-the-hill wrestler who desperately wants to have a better life but screws up at every turn. Excellent work.

Most Unexpectedly Good Performance: Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent
Everyone was expecting a train wreck of global proportions when a dowdy Scottish spinster and would-be singer named Susan Boyle ambled out on the stage of talent-competition show Britain's Got Talent on April 11, 2009. There was mean-spirited snickering and WTFing aplenty, but basically everyone on the planet was gobsmacked when the voice of an angel came out of her mouth. It was particularly gratifying to see those jaded, cynical judges fall all over themselves praising Boyle. I never get tired of the YouTube video of her performance and often watch it for a little feel-good pick-me-up.

Most Encouraging Socio-Political Trend: The Green Movement
Can it be that people in this country are finally catching up, even a little bit, with people all over the world in realizing the climate change is real, dangerous, and occurring right now? Maybe the message of critical time is getting through; that is, the world is rapidly approaching a tipping point that once it is passed, disastrous climate change will be inevitable. We can only hope the young people in this country will take the lead in spearheading a movement which can only save the planet for their future.

Most Admired Politician of the Year: No one yet.
Time is running out, people, work with me here.

BONUS! Most Admired Politician of the Decade: Al Gore
Al Gore has been a continual beacon of intelligence, sobriety and good sense for the entire decade. Tirelessly advocating for desperately-needed change in global energy policy, his landmark film An Inconvenient Truth laid out a thoughtful, well-reasoned and scientifically-valid argument for how we are laying waste to the only planet we have to live on. Even though he has opened many eyes to the truth, he must feel sometimes like he is a lone voice crying in the wilderness. So many people still adamantly adhere to the idea that global warming is a myth. Will they wake up too late, or not at all?

Most Respected Political Writer: TIE: Jeremy Scahill and Matt Taibbi
Jeremy Scahill is an amazingly intelligent, articulate author ("Blackwater", The Nation magazine) whose appearances on news and talk shows are always very interesting and thought-provoking. Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone magazine) has tackled the monumental problems of the year (financial meltdown, mortgage crisis, health care) and has constantly provided amazingly detailed and well-written analyses. I wish both these writers would be read by every single person in this country who has anything to say about these extremely serious issues.
Runner-Up: Bill Moyers. For being an ordained Baptist minister he is extremely intelligent and always fascinating.

Best Technological Achievement of the Year: Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope
The highly-venerated Hubble orbital telescope, which for years has provided an astonishingly detailed, thoroughly amazing window on our universe was almost abandoned as it far exceeded its intended lifespan and critical repair and maintenance tasks added up. Luckily, due to public outcry, one more servicing mission with the Space Shuttle was made and now Hubble is back better than ever! Perhaps its biggest accomplishment has been to fire up the imagination of many many people here on earth and made them look up to the sky in wonder. Long live the Hubble Space Telescope!

BONUS! Best Technological Achievement of the Decade: HDTV
I still remember the first time I looked at an HDTV at an Ultimate Electronics store. I was amazed and mesmerized by the incredibly detailed, sharp picture. I thought back to the first time I had seen a color TV picture, in a store window in downtown Pittsburgh in the 1960s (it was a baseball game telecast) and thought to myself, I need to get me one of those. After being an HDTV owner since 2002, I am completely and totally hooked on it. HDTV is awesome, and I'm sure that the next-generation 3DTVs that will be arriving soon will be equally mind-blowing.

Favorite Food of the Year: My own recipe of Grilled Chicken marinated in Key Lime Juice and Cajun Spices
OMG! YUM! So easy to make and so tasty, if I do say so myself.

BONUS! Favorite Food of the Decade: Sushi
Edible art. Simple ingredients, but incredibly delicious. Who knew raw fish could be so good?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sundays in December

December is one of the nicest times of the year for us desert-dwellers. The days can be cool and pleasant, and the nights bracing and downright chilly. For people who routinely get through summer high temperatures which regularly venture north of 110 degrees, any temps below sixty degrees send us scurrying to our closets for our heavy clothing (which normally sit undisturbed for eleven months) and we gleefully relish the chance to wear our sweaters and hoodies and cardigans.

December also brings a quiet, contemplative mood to it. It is the end of the year and everyone starts to get philosophical and reflective about everything that has transpired, good or bad. Days are very short in duration, and by 6pm the car headlights come on. The nights seem endlessly long, with the sun staying in bed until well past 7am. The sun is low in the south for the whole day, causing shadows to be longer. Its light is softer, less harsh, more golden in tone and it brings out the color in the tree leaves. These days and evenings are just perfect for comfort food, like hearty soups and stews, which warm both the body and the soul.

Sundays in December are particularly enjoyable. They are soft, gentle and very welcoming, like an old sweater or a warm, comfortable pair of shoes. The upcoming Christmas season dominates all and you can fairly smell the fragrance of pine trees and fresh-baked Christmas cookies, see the holly boughs and hear all the great Christmas music. It is a time for introspection and taking time to realize what is truly important in this crazy, out-of-control world we inhabit - things like friendships and traditions and being grateful for and happy with what you have, as opposed to fretting about what you don't have and probably really don't need.

It's true when they say that as you get older, you appreciate different things in life. Maybe over the course of many years you start to realize which things are fleeting, temporary and transitory, and which are more satisfying, long-lasting and gratifying. I find now that I can get a great deal of pleasure and fulfillment out of enjoying quiet, serene Sunday afternoons in December.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

White Christmas, Indeed!

The Christmas season brings its whole raft of unique entertainment and there's something for everybody. Whether it's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (completely irresistible) or "Santa Claus vs. The Martians" (polar opposite) there's something to check out nearly every day. One of my favorite diversions is the Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." It was on television last night and I was so there.

"White Christmas" came out in 1954 and it really is a window on to another world and another time. World War II was still very much on everyone's mind even in the brave new world of postwar United States, where prosperity was everywhere, the babies were booming and the future could not look brighter. Americans were still processing the war experience and there were wounds remaining to be healed and lost soldiers to be remembered. It's clear in the film that the American military were still held in the highest regard, and being a soldier could not be a more noble or honorable profession. When you were part of a military unit you were part of a family, and your loyalty to your fellow soldiers and commanding officers were absolute and unwavering, even long after the war ended. The movie opens in Christmas 1944 in a war zone where inexplicably a holiday stage show is going on - complete with musicians and snowy backdrop - while strobe lights, I mean bombs, are going off in the distance. In only one of a myriad of dizzyingly surreal touches, Danny Kaye is playing some kind of crank-powered music box which floats delicate, tinkling notes amid the bombed-out landscape and allows Der Bingle to stop the show early on with his version of the immortal song, "White Christmas."

Fast-forward to after the end of the war, and Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are a successful Broadway songwriting/performing team. They find out that their former commanding officer, General Waverly, is running a failing resort hotel in the wilds of Vermont and immediately they drop everything and go to the rescue of the venerable war hero, who is worshiped like a god. There is also a pair of singing-and-dancing sisters, played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, thrown in to add a little romantic tension and innocent tomfoolery. One of the showpieces of the movie is a song called "Sisters," where the ladies dance with huge blue ostrich-feather fans and celebrate the wonderful sisterly relationship they have, swearing eternal love and loyalty to each other, unless of course some man comes around and gets in the way. The song has this great kicker line at the end:

Lord help the mister
Who comes between me and my sister
And Lord help the sister
Who comes between me and my man!

Wow, that is awesome. Talk about wanting it both ways. You can be my sister and I'll love you to death, but mess around with my man and you are one dead beeyatch. Immediately I envisioned a Jerry Springer-type catfight where these two women tear into each other with the ferocity of wild animals while some scrawny guy in a dirty t-shirt looks on. A song like that with such a nihilistic, bisexual message would be the basis of an entire HBO series these days, but back then it was considered innocuous and normal. In another of the unexpected, bizarre twists that fill this movie, Crosby and Kaye assume the roles of the women - blue feather fans and all - and pantomime the song to a surprised Manhattan night club audience, lip-synching and mincing their way through it and getting big laughs from the sophisticated urbanites. Nothing enhances a holiday movie like a mildly inept drag performance, I always say.

Now there are a lot of other things going on in this movie, and the silliness is pretty much non-stop. The movie does jump the tracks a couple of times as the romantic back-story and wacky entanglements of the four lead characters get a bit more time than is needed, but it always returns to its main and best story, saving the Vermont lodge for the "Old Man." After a lot of maneuvering, Crosby and Kaye end up dragging an entire Broadway show - cast, crew and everything - up to Vermont via train, and putting on a staggering, astonishingly intricate benefit show for the General and his lodge. It looked like half of Broadway headed north, including singers, dancers, musicians, choreographers, set builders, painters, costumers, electricians, stagehands and just about everyone else they could cram on the train, not to mention a media tie-in with the show being broadcast on that new-fangled thing called "television." Are we going to try to figure out how they got a national-feed television signal out of rural Vermont in 1954 without a satellite? Of course not, not when there is singing and dancing aplenty going on. A dress rehearsal for a minstrel show scared me to death because I was sure it was going to veer off into some explosion of racial stereotyping, but it only ended up being a harmless exhumation of the spirit of Vaudeville.

The gender roles of postwar America are glaringly on display everywhere. In nearly every scene, women were shown in subservient, secondary roles, usually relegated to whipping up trays full of sandwiches and glasses of buttermilk (EWWW!) for the eternally-hungry crew. In at least one instance the General refers to them as "the womenfolk." The hotel assistant Emma, played by a tall, lanky, wisecracking Mary Wickes, is really the deus ex machina of the movie, and it's only through her incessant eavesdropping on telephone conversations, behind-the-scene manipulation of everything and everybody and constant kvetching that the movie gleefully steamrolls its way to its final, mind-blowing scene. There is also a naughty little undercurrent of sexuality, especially during the reheasals where lots of very leggy chorus girls are shown lounging around in chairs or stretching and warming up in teeny-tiny shorts in December in Vermont.

But this movie makes no apologies to anyone, and needs none. Part musical entertainment, part anthropological treatise, it really is a frozen moment in the American psyche when the idealism of the fifties was in full bloom, America was in its supremacy, and a good life was guaranteed to all. That was before the Russians started shooting satellites up into the sky and African-Americans started marching in small Alabama towns for their civil rights. And then the sixties came along and everything really got messed up. But if you're looking for a way to experience the squeaky-clean Fifties and hear some great music and singing and groan over corny jokes for a couple of hours, you just can't beat "White Christmas."

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Rumbles of Discontent

Well, here we are barreling full tilt toward the end of year, having survived the gigantic pothole in the road that is Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving Day is not that bad, it is what comes immediately afterward that makes my eyes bug. There's this little thing called "Black Friday," the start of the Christmas shopping season, and the day when we're all supposed to go completely berserk and shop 'til we puke.

I'm becoming more convinced each year that Black Friday is another of those media-created, media-driven non-events. The reason why that day gets weirder and more intense each year is that the media whips people up in a frenzy, just about forcing them to believe there is some kind of genetic imperative to go out and spend money. If there wasn't a huge amount of media coverage - much ado about nothing - I think "Black Friday" would be just another day. The same thing happens, to a less extent, with "Cyber Monday" when everyone does their online shopping. Do we really need the media telling us this?

The day before Thanksgiving one of the local TV stations had a story about these two Phoenix-area housewives planning their assault on the stores and malls on Black Friday. It showed them combing through newspaper and online ads, making copious notations about where the bargains were, Mapquesting their travel routes and timing their shopping sprees down to the minute, starting at 4am. The only thing that was planned with more attention to detail and meticulous organization was the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II.

But nearly hidden under all the consumerist hysteria is another story. The first year of Barack Obama's term in office will be over in a little more than a month, and it seems a number of his supporters are starting to feel a little buyer's remorse. Obama was swept into office by a wide-ranging coalition of liberals, progressives, moderates and a whole rainbow of ethnic and racial factions. His message had always been one of change, and he portrayed himself as the agent of that change, an outsider who will come in and throw the status-quo and entrenched special-interests out on their ears. Unfortunately, precious little of the promised change has been delivered.

And now, people are beginning to talk. The progressively-inclined Bill Maher on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, took Obama to task several times for his lack of meaningful progress on front-burner issues like health care, energy policy, and the closing of Guantanamo. Filmmaker Michael Moore, a prominent progressive who has gleefully taken on the gun lobby, the health care industries and George Bush, complained loudly that Obama is following his predecessor and stepping up the war in Afghanistan, and instead of pulling out and bringing the troops home as promised, recently announced plans to deploy 30,000+ more soldiers to that benighted country. And most recently, the excellent writer Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone magazine analyzed the Obama administration's response to the economic meltdown which almost bankrupted this country. Taibbi ruefully points out that the advisors Obama chose to lead the nation out of the current mess were precisely the ones who caused the mess in the first place, and that by itself will guarantee that critically-needed financial reform will be impossible. In fact, laws and regulations are being written right now that will consolidate and institutionalize the power of Wall Street and their stranglehold on Washington.

There are so many dire problems facing us right now, and it's becoming more and more apparent that Obama just is not measuring up to the task. In my opinion a crucial, if not fatal, mistake he made early on was thinking that he was going to somehow convince the Republicans to join him in bipartisan unity and help solve the problems together. One thing he apparently ignored was the fact that the Republicans had nothing to lose after their catastrophic loss in the 2008 elections and had no motivation to pitch in and help. After all, things could not be any worse for them. Obama just doesn't get it - the Republican party has been taken over by the fundamentalists and the conservatives and they never, ever compromise on anything. It's either their way or no way at all, and they are perfectly willing to let the country falter and fail in spectacular fashion if they don't get their way.

Obama has very clearly moved to the center of the political spectrum, hoping that would somehow make him more palatable to the far-right conservatives, but their deep-seated hatred of him and everything he does makes that impossible. Obama has shown a really frustrating willingness to do anything to please people who smile in his face and then turn around and lambaste him on conservative talk radio. What he should have done was slammed the door in the face of the Republican party, and told them when they are willing to come around and stop acting like they're trying to destroy this country, they would be welcomed back. Otherwise, go away and stay away.

There really is a lot at stake right now. If Obama fails and all his major initiatives - health care, financial reform, foreign policy - turn into crap, the Democrats will find themselves exiled into the wilderness by an American electorate who will be fighting mad that they've been sold down the river. They were promised so much in terms of change and got nothing, and they will be pissed. That will open the floodgates for the Mitt Romneys, the Sarah Palins, the Mike Huckabees, the Newt Gingriches, and every other loathsome right-wing creep who will come crawling out of every sewer and cesspool around, all pushing and shoving their way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.

And that would be the icing on a very big, very disastrous cake.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Autumn into Winter

Autumn in the desert is a subtle season, not as garishly over-the-top as autumn on the east coast. Back east, the fall colors explode over the landscape and in your face, literally demanding that you pay attention to them. Fall is everywhere you look, and that is not a bad thing at all. One of the most memorable autumns I ever experienced was many years ago on a vacation in Maine and eastern Canada. I flew to Boston and got a rental car, and headed up the coast. I was blessed with a week of the most perfectly clear, warm weather I could ever have asked for, and the autumn colors were at their height. Along the coast of Maine I came across countless picture-postcard scenes of white clapboard churches nestled in groves of brilliantly-colored trees, under a deep blue sky with wispy, delicate cirrus clouds. My mind became completely saturated with color and beauty, and my visit to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and especially the serene, pastoral Prince Edward Island still provide some of the most intense and pleasurable memories of any vacation in my life.

But as I said, this time of year in the desert kind of sneaks up on you on little mouse toes. You start to notice small things, like the deep chill in the morning, and the light shining through the trees takes on a more golden or orange hue. The sun rises a little further south each day and as the solstice approaches, I have my own little version of Stonehenge in my home. For a couple of weeks before and after the winter solstice, the sun sends a strip of light shining through my kitchen and on to the closet door next to the front door, and illuminates the entry foyer with a glow that only happens during this time of year, and only for a short time. Strangely enough I've come to look forward to seeing this little display of light every winter, and the incongruous, fortuitous alignment of morning sun and windows in my home that creates this miraculous little apparition.

Up in the nighttime sky things are changing, too. Orion the Hunter has cleared the neighbor's mammoth pine tree and is slowly righting himself in the eastern sky, his arm raised, his knife hanging below his belt. Hidden in his belt is the Horsehead Nebula, a cloud of dark gas and dust which appears as the silhouette of a horse's head against the dim glow of heated hydrogen gas behind it. Running ahead of Orion is Taurus the Bull, and ahead of him are the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. Taurus is also famous for having had one of the brightest supernovas visible to the naked eye. Back in the year 1054, Chinese astronomers were shocked and surprised to note the appearance of a brand new star in the sky, which for a couple of months shone brighter than any other star, and was actually visible in the daytime. This brilliant exploding star gradually dimmed and disappeared back into the blackness of the sky, but left behind an enormous, expanding cloud of gas and dust, which has formed a complex, dense network of streamers, filaments and debris, along with a pulsar at the center - the dead, destroyed remnant of the stellar core - spinning rapidly and sending out pulses of radiation at extremely precise, regular intervals, just like the ticking of a cosmic clock. Under Orion, Lepus the Hare is slowly, cautiously becoming visible and behind Orion is his faithful hunting dog, Canis Major. Also making an appearance low in the east is Gemini, with the twin stars Castor and Pollux making an unmistakable pairing.

Autumn here doesn't last very long and neither does winter. Half of November, December, January and part of February make up the lifespan of the two seasons, and by Valentine's Day the trees will be blooming again, the days will be noticeably longer, the weather will be warming up and hopefully the desert will be green again after a good dosing of winter rains. The fleeting nature of the desert seasons make it all the more important to savor and appreciate them while they are here, because they bring a color and a tenor and a feeling to this beautiful land which is very subtle, very lovely, and very enjoyable.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

November Madness

Here we are in mid-November, and we're getting some of the best weather of the year in Phoenix. The days are sunny and clear, with temps in the mid- to high-seventies and the nights get delightfully chilly. Most evenings you can go outside and smell the aroma of fireplaces in the still air. Everyone is gearing up for the imminent holiday season, the time when a bit of childish silliness is permitted and our inner child is encouraged to come out and have fun. But instead of gentle, good-spirited playfulness we get wave after wave of batshit-craziness, as we have had all year long. It seems that even the approaching Christmas season can't flush out all the entrenched idiots in Congress and beyond.

The remnants of the health care reform bill limp tragically along through Congress, with everyone and their mother taking pot shots at it, hoping to put it out of its misery. The Republicans, as they always do, are goose-stepping along in perfect lockstep with each other, united in their mindless addiction to the lobbying money of the health care industry. And the Democrats, as they always do, are proving to be their own worst enemy with the "Blue Dog" Democrats siding with the Republicans in critical votes. And to no one's surprise, abortion - which by the way still happens to be a right guaranteed by the Supreme Court - has to be dragged into the fray as a cultural wedge issue. The only surprise was that a vile, loathsome amendment blocking ANY coverage for abortion under truly outrageous, restrictive conditions was introduced by a Democrat, Rep. Bart Stupak from Michigan. You would never see a Republican representative defying their leadership like that - slavish, robotic devotion to an ideology does have its advantages.

And what are we to do with Sarah Palin, who continues to be a giant infected pimple on the butt of America? Now she is getting on a big bus, not for the one-way trip to Oblivion that she so richly deserves, but for a cross-country March of Stupidity to flog her ridiculous book. Amazingly, the book is something like 413 pages long. Palin has not had 413 pages of coherent thoughts in her whole life. What did she do, document every single trip she made to the Wasilla Walmart? The only thing more incomprehensible than her writing this colossal waste of paper is anyone spending money on it and God forbid, actually reading it. There is absolutely nothing Palin could say in her book that would interest me in the slightest, although there were some unintentional moments of comedy as excerpts trickled out. In the campaign last year, Palin got a lot of flak from the $150,000 spent on her wardrobe. Her book documents that she got upset because in her mind, it made her family "look like a herd of hillbillies that were living high off the hog!" HAHAHA! She actually said that! In another stunning example of her total lack of self-awareness, she doesn't realize that her family LOOKS like a herd of hillbillies because they ARE a herd of hillbillies! They come from Wasilla, Alaska for God's sake! They can't help but look like a herd of hillbillies! That was such a hilarious thing for her to say, I can't tell you how much that made me laugh. I really believe that anyone who reads her book will suffer a loss of at least 10 I.Q. points, and the vast majority of conservatives in this country simply cannot sustain such a huge drop in their brainpower.

As another example of the dumbing of America I submit the recent premiere of a movie called 2012, a high-budget, special-effects laden disaster movie. Movie-goers love their disaster flicks, maybe because after watching the destruction of the planet their own weirdly pathetic lives don't look so bad after all. And there's all kinds of ways that humanity can meet its end, whether through ecological disasters such as The Day After Tomorrow, or alien invasions as in Independence Day or War of the Worlds, but this latest shake-and-bake epic is triggered by the ending of the Mayan calendar, which runs out on December 21, 2012. What they don't bother to tell you is that the Mayan calendar is made up of a series of epochs called "long counts," and what is going to happen on 12/21/2012 is that the current long count will end and the NEXT ONE WILL START right after it! It's just like when your current calendar runs out on December 31. The world doesn't come to an end, does it? Of course not, you just start a new year with a new calendar! Well that's what's going to happen with the Mayan calendar. Anyhow the movie says that neutrinos from solar flares microwave the Earth's core and cause massive seismic disruption. These flares come from the Sun lining up with the center of the galaxy as it does EVERY DAMNED YEAR in December when the Sun moves through the constellation Sagittarius!! The movie shows crustal buckling in Los Angeles and part of California falling into the ocean. Such things do happen, but in geological time scales involving millions of years, not twenty minutes of movie time. There are just so many things preposterously wrong with this movie that I can't even start, so I'm just going to go along with it and treat it like the escapist fantasy diversion it really is, much like Congress would be if it wasn't so stupifyingly evil and destructive in real life.

After all, the complete annihilation of the planet would be a day at Disneyland compared to the Palins living in the White House.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Boycott Christma$$$

As the year barrels to a close and the second decade of the twenty-first century rears its ugly head above the horizon, everyone should become dimly aware of the approaching holidays. Thanksgiving is a little more than three weeks away, and Christmas a bit more than seven weeks off. So, we should be hearing more about Thanksgiving, right? Not so fast, because I just saw my first television commercial for the Christmas holiday, and I haven't heard squat about Thanksgiving.

Walgreen's and Costco have had some of their Christmas merchandise out on display for weeks now, and I can't tell you how jolting and disorienting it is to see fully decorated Christmas trees right after coming in from near 100-degree temps outside. But I voluntarily walked into both of those fine establishments and I can walk back out again if I want to. When advertisers start showing their Christmas commercials on television, that is more of an invasion of privacy. By bringing their sales harangues uninvited into my living room and dumping them in my lap, they are showing an aggressiveness and pushiness that does not go unchallenged.

And I really wouldn't care if they started in with the Yuletide commercials right after Thanksgiving, the usual start of the holiday shopping madness, because that's when I really curtail my television viewing. I seriously get aggravated when I see the same damned annoying commercial 50 times in the space of a half-hour. And Christmas music can be very nice when it's not used as background music for hordes of greed-crazed children going into grand-mal seizures if they don't get whatever overpriced piece-of-crap gift the advertisers tell them they have to have this year, or their Christmas will be a complete failure.

There are plenty of things about Christmas that I like, such as the cooler weather, the house decorations (although that can get really out of control), going to Christmas parties with friends, and the aforementioned Christmas music. XM Radio in particular has a wonderful audio channel called "Classical Christmas" that they broadcast only during the holidays, and it showcases incredible holiday music that you rarely hear anywhere. There are some really enjoyable holiday movies on TV, and one of my favorites is "White Christmas" starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye (more about it in a future blog). I love the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert, strange as that may sound. And there's just something so damned reassuring and comforting about "A Charlie Brown Christmas." It's like a big warm blanket made up of your childhood memories that just wraps around you and makes you feel like a kid again. That kind of stuff is priceless.

I've started my own Christmas traditions, and one of them is to boycott the store who shows the first Christmas commercial on TV. Last year that honor went to Wal-Mart, and this year it goes to Kohl's department stores. So, suck it Kohl's, Merry Damned Christmas to you. Because of your greediness and self-serving rush to shove your name into everyone's face so early on in the season, you won't be seeing me or my money in any of your stores. It's called voting with your wallet, and my wallet does not vote for Kohl's.

Obviously the kind of money-grubbing Christmas season the advertisers are trying to force us into experiencing comes from a place of greed and avarice. We're going to hear so much of the upcoming shopping season being a barometer of the success or failure of all the economic stimulus efforts that have been and are being done. And it's really a shame to cast Christmas in that light, because it just turns the holidays into more of a mad, delirious shopping spree/death march than usual, leaving everyone tired, demoralized and deeper in debt. But it doesn't have to be that way.

The choice really comes down to whether you will sit back and passively accept the edicts and demands of the business world when it comes to celebrating Christmas the way they want you to, or actively reject the stifling consumerism that chokes all the joy out of the season. I choose the latter, and this year as last year I'm backing away from the shopping and spending and gift-giving hysteria that used to make me fear this time of year. It's really simple and easy - all the power is in your hands. I'm going to start by telling my friends to please not buy me anything. I love my friends and appreciate their generosity, but I am very fortunate to have more "stuff" than I need. I would really love it if they kept their money and either spent it on themselves or their pets, or donate it to a charity of their choice, and Brambley Hedge Rabbit Rescue is always my first choice when it comes to worthy charities. For me, what I want the most is to spend time with my friends, enjoy their company and their good humor with a wonderful meal or a bottle of wine, and just get back to the way Christmas should be celebrated - as a time for gathering-together in friendship and holiday spirit.

Friday, October 30, 2009

All Hallows' E'en

Tomorrow is Halloween, just about the most fun and interesting holiday of the year. Halloween is sheer craziness, with people dropping their usual self-absorption and letting their inner child run free.

Derived from an ancient Celtic/pagan holiday, Halloween doesn't seem to have as much baggage as other holidays. It doesn't quite have the uncontrollable, crass commercialism and vulgar greediness of Christmas (although the trick-or-treat candy marketing does get to be a bit much), nor the food-and-football obsession of Thanksgiving. There is not the overwhelming guilt that seems to strangle Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, nor the obligatory, knee-jerk patriotism of Independence Day, nor the schizophrenic, multiple-personality vibe of Easter. Halloween is all about letting go and having fun, and if you're willing to ignore the hordes of grubby children parading up your driveway and demanding protection money in the form of stale candy corn, rock-hard popcorn balls and little tiny Snickers bars, it can be a very liberating experience.

I have some great childhood memories of Halloween, but one in particular stands out. I don't remember how old I was, but I'm thinking maybe 5 or 6 years old, and it might not have been on the actual Halloween night, but very close to it. One evening just at sunset my mother and I left the house to go on some errand. The wind was swirling all around making the fallen leaves spin and twirl in a fanciful little danse macabre. The orange light of sunset flooded everything and made the autumn leaves on the trees glow with a fiery light that seemed to come from within. But there was some kind of major electricity in the atmosphere, some kind of palpable spirit in the air that I picked up on and just made me run and dance and jump around like I was possessed. I have never figured out exactly what was going on, but I will never forget the irresistible, breath-taking feeling that evening, of the wind and the golden-orange light of sunset gilding everything with fire, and the unmistakable impression that for this one night, spirits of the dead were truly walking the earth.

So even though Halloween is all about letting go and releasing your inhibitions, there are still plenty of priggish old wet blankets who will try to put a damper on everybody's party. A couple of days ago at lunch I was looking through the local newspaper, the Arizona Republic (yeah, I know, just work with me on this), and someone had written a letter to the editor decrying the pagan, anti-Christian tenor of Halloween. They recommended to parents instead of dressing their little hooligans up as ghouls, ghosts and goblins and letting them run amok in the neighborhood shaking down senior citizens for overpriced treats, they should just throw a party at home and have the kids dress up as biblical characters. I kid you not, this was actually in the newspaper, and the only thing more blatantly idiotic than someone writing such tripe is the AZ Republic printing it. Hoo boy, what a fun party THAT would be! I mean, could that writer BE any more prudish or more of a stick-in-the-mud? They sound like the pathetic twit in Catholic school who would remind the nun just before dismissal on Friday afternoon that she forgot to give the homework assignments for the weekend. I guess that's the kind of adult you become after getting beat up every single school day for twelve years. Jeez, get a freaking grip already, it's only Halloween.

If I wasn't so lazy and boring, I would get dressed up as Sarah Palin or Sister Mary Flatulence the Nun From Hell or Spock from Star Trek and go out and have some fun. But since every day to me is a costume drama filled with freaks, scary people and creepy, mentally-ill Republicans, it tends to dull the unique aspect of Halloween. But I will be celebrating the night in my own way, looking up at the nearly-full moon in the sky and in the back of my mind will be feeling the electric wind swirl around me and sense the spirits of the dead visiting our world again.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Media Circus, Alaska Style

Has anyone gotten more media mileage from knocking up their girlfriend than Levi Johnston? Ever since he was barfed up on the national stage by the cynical media-meisters of the Republican party in an ill-advised and ultimately disastrous ploy for cultural relevancy (how they could even think about cultural relevancy with an obsolete dinosaur like John McCain was their first mistake), Johnston has been brilliant in somehow maintaining his place on the pop-culture radar. An astonishing feat for a dimwitted redneck from a white-trash backwater garbage dump - a.k.a. Wasilla, Alaska - Johnston has managed to keep the media's attention with a veneer of aw-shucks country-boy dopiness which covers up an almost unnatural ease in dealing with national news outlets.

Johnston's trip through the underbelly of the American psyche continues, this time with a two-pronged approach. Seeking to appeal to both highbrow and lowbrow culture, he has managed to titillate a segment of the population by threatening to pose naked in Playgirl magazine, a very risky gambit at best because if he doesn't deliver the goods to the level of expectation being generated, he will find himself knocked off his high-level perch. But like every pop-culture media whore, he has a Plan B. He is threatening to write a book and drop all manner of dirt on his baby's gramma, Sarah Palin. Having been nearly submerged in the dysfunctional morass of the Palin clan, Johnston certainly had a ring-side seat to the icky, sticky-sweet facade of Sarah Palin, whose Republican handlers constantly try to portray her as an all-American, girl-next-door type, something that a lot of ignorant, uneducated Americans willingly fall for.

It was hugely hilarious recently on CBS' The Early Show when Johnston was on mumbling about some embarrassing information he has about the former Alaska governor. Palin herself jumped in front of the nearest microphone and hissed out this astonishingly self-referential response:

"CBS should be ashamed for continually providing a forum to propagate lies. Consider the source of the most recent attention-getting lies - those who would sell their body for money reflect a desperate need for attention and are likely to say and do anything for even more attention."

HAHAHA! WHAT??? Pot, meet Kettle. The funniest thing is that her statement applies to her own self even more than it applies to Johnston. Except for maybe the "sell their body" part (and I really wouldn't put that past her if it meant getting more publicity), if there is anyone who has a "desperate need for attention" and is "likely to say and do anything for even more attention," it has to be Palin, and she's been doing it for a hell of a lot longer than Johnston. That quote could not be funnier.

Now, anyone who knows me or has read my blog knows that I am very much in favor of anything and everything that causes embarrassment to the Republican party or to Sarah Palin in particular. To me, everything about the Palins reeks of insincerity and phoniness. Her attempt to portray herself as just a "regular person" who wants to be president resonates with millions of Americans who somehow think it is a good idea to have an idiot in the White House, as if eight years of George W. Bush didn't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt what a horrible idea that is. But also beyond a shadow of a doubt is the fact that every single thing she does, says or writes is scripted down to the last comma and supplied to her by the Republican puppet-masters, who are the undisputed experts when it comes to appealing to the fears, bigotry and prejudices of the American voter.

So what are we to make of this Johnston kid, who got caught up in a wave of teenage lust and somehow has managed to ride it to the heights of notoriety? I have written in a previous blog entry about "schadenfreude," which is taking pleasure from the misfortune of others. I heartily endorse and support anything that makes Sarah Palin and the Republican party uncomfortable or puts them on the defensive. I don't include anything that would make the GOP feel ashamed, because they continue to prove over and over again that they have no shame. No tactic or strategy is too underhanded, pathetic or divisive for them, and they show themselves to be morality- and integrity-free at every opportunity. So I will put up with Levi Johnston's imbecilic blathering and posturing if it means he will continue being a thorn in Sarah Palin's side, and I will be very interested in reading anything that points out what a phony media whore she really is.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The More Things Change....

My 50th blog post! WOOHOO!

Everyone's heard the old phrase, "the more things change the more they stay the same." That seems to be the case with the financial disaster out of which this country is still trying to find its way.

Last week "Bill Moyer's Journal" on PBS had an eye-opening discussion on this topic. Bill's guests were Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Simon Johnston, former Chief Economist with the IMF and currently at MIT Sloan School. They gave a very reasoned, intelligent assessment on the state of this country's economy. There was no screaming or jumping up and down, and no one tried to shout the other down. They didn't carry around misspelled, incomprehensible or outrageously stupid signs. It was just two thoughtful, articulate people stating some obvious and not-so-obvious facts about the economy, and what they had to say was chilling. Some of the salient points:

>> There is a massive revolving door between Washington and Wall Street that allows financial executives to rise to the highest levels of government and enjoy unprecedented access to the centers of power. Henry Paulson, formerly of Goldman Sachs and Timothy Geither, former head of the NY Federal Reserve, are the former and current Treasury Secretaries.

>> Lack of meaningful regulation left Wall Street with virtual free reign when it came to concocting exotic, high-risk financial instruments. The lure of extreme profits enticed them to take extreme risks. When the mortgage crisis brought many of them tumbling down, the taxpayers had to step in and bail them out. This resulted in the privatization of profits and the socialization of loss; that is, Wall Street kept the immense profits but unloaded the immense debt on us.

>> Bankruptcies and consolidations have reduced the number of huge powerful banks from 12 down to 4 super-banks, all of whom are lined up against any kind of financial reform.

>> Both of the guests on "Journal" agreed that the window of opportunity for meaningful financial reform in this country has passed. Nothing will be done at this point to change how Wall Street does business. In fact, they have become more entrenched in their ways. So what is going to prevent another financial melt-down from occurring in the future? Absolutely nothing.

>> The financial crisis for big banks is over. Their profits are huge again, and growing bigger all the time. They are getting ready to dole out their usual outrageous array of bonuses. It's the taxpayers, the people that gave the banks a way to save themselves and get out of near-total ruin, who are suffering in a bleak, tepid and jobless recovery, and will continue to do so for a very long time.

>> Banks have no respect for the President, and their lackeys in Congress preoccupy themselves with trivial, arcane and meaningless matters, instead of tackling the real problems behind the financial crisis. Congress should be holding hearings on the new architecture of the financial system, prudent lending, increasing savings and limited debt. They are not, nor will they anytime soon.

>> The same bankers who precipitated this financial mess on everyone, amazingly are the ones in charge of fixing it! That's like if you own a building and you hire someone to be fire marshall, and through their stupidity they burn the building down. So what do you do? You hire the same person to be fire marshall in your new building and give them a huge raise! How much sense does that make? None? Well that is exactly what is going on right now.

>> You can bet your next mortgage payment that the people who caused the mess and are now charged with cleaning it up, are covering up their own tracks and making sure they are not held responsible for anything. The FBI has only a very small number of agents investigating financial fraud and are for the most part disinterested in bringing anyone to justice.

>> There was a much smaller, but very similar situation in the savings and loan debacle of the 1980s. We, that taxpayers, are STILL making payments on the debt we assumed in that mess, and will continue to do so until the year 2013. How long are we going to be paying for this recent, much larger catastrophe? I'm guessing long after all of us are gone.

This episode of "Bill Moyer's Journal" was one of the most sobering and disheartening half-hours of television reporting I've seen in a long time. I think everyone in this country should have to watch it. The American people need to wake up to what is going on in their own country. Otherwise, their ruination will be assured.

Monday, October 5, 2009

7 Things We Did Wrong

As threatened earlier, here is my list of some things mankind has done in his unending quest to reshape the world to his liking, which did not turn out quite as well as intended. Along with some possible silver-lining upsides that resulted:

1) Organized Religion. Probably the biggest and most spectacular failure of all, organized religion is likely the most destructive and crippling pestilence mankind ever inflicted on itself. An incalculable amount of damage, misery and suffering has been wreaked in its name. How many billions of people have been enslaved by it, how many lives ruined, how many bright promising futures stifled because of it? How many native cultures were exterminated by missionaries imposing their beliefs? Organized religion's lust for money and power have supplanted any good intentions it might have had in the beginning, and nowadays it appears to be more of a political force than a spiritual force.
UPSIDE: As much as I hate to admit it, during the Dark Ages most of the world's knowledge and intellectual activity were preserved by monks and clerics in abbeys and monasteries.

2) Democracy. Probably the best form of government we've ever come up with, democracy as a concept sure has a lot going for it. Imagine a system where the people being governed are actually in charge and making decisions that affect them. Jeffersonian democracy - a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" - is stunning in its simplicity and its genius. Too bad it didn't turn out that way. In order for democracy to work as intended, a critically important component is an informed, engaged population. Those being governed need to be intelligent enough to understand the problems they face and willing to participate in the solutions, even if personally uncomfortable sacrifices are needed. Unfortunately being a responsible citizen takes time and effort and far too many people are just too lazy to do the work.
UPSIDE: Makes it easy to see how ridiculous communism and Marxism are.

3) Capitalism. Again, like democracy, great on paper but not so easy to implement in real time. It seems like a good thing - the success you have in life should depend on the market for your goods or services and how hard you are willing to work. Somewhere along the way things go off the rails and market inequities take over. Then you get really valuable, worthwhile occupations like teachers, nurses, firefighters and police being extremely undervalued and under-compensated, and worthless scumbag entertainers, politicians and sports figures being paid astronomical salaries far out of proportion to their societal worth, to the point of obscenity. Capitalism invariably generates a have/have-not society distributed through an upper/middle/lower class system, with subclasses and extremes on both ends. The result is a world where extreme wealth and extreme poverty co-exist side by side.
UPSIDE: Motivates people to reach higher, if only to get more money.

4) The Art of Medicine. Medicine and the healing arts are one of man's greatest triumphs, to be sure. The number of lives that have been saved by the accumulated medical knowledge over the millennia has to be in the billions. All but a very few of us are alive today, I believe, because of some sort of medical intervention in the past, and that includes me. But in modern times, greed has taken over the nobler ambitions and when making a profit depends on a steady supply of sick people, then more sick people mean more profit, right? Health insurance companies, drug manufacturers and for-profit medicine have come together in a huge medical-industrial complex. If drug companies in particular would take a fraction of the money they spend developing and marketing drugs and use it to educate people in making sensible, healthy choices in their lives then maybe we wouldn't need all those expensive drugs. But that's not where the money is, is it? When sick people are no longer profitable and healthy people are, then we will get medicine back to being the best it can be.
UPSIDE: People are living longer! Unfortunately some of them are Republicans.

5) Nuclear Energy. Boy, did this sound like a great thing or what? Harnessing one of nature's basic forces and turning it into a nearly limitless amount of energy, to inexpensively supply the world's ever-growing power demands. And didn't it turn into a really bad idea when the military got a hold of it and changed it into the most destructive force ever unleashed on this planet? Today, enough nuclear weapons exist to destroy the earth something like 30 times over, and a small but worrisome number of these weapons are either unaccounted for or not-too-closely guarded. Why, some crazy bunch of religious fundamentalists could conceivably get a hold of a couple of them and ... well, that's kind of too scary to consider. We should have known the idea of extremely cheap, unlimited energy would be too good to be true, and it is.
UPSIDE: Really cool but really scary atomic explosions.

6) Freedom of Speech. Being able to say whatever you want is a relatively new concept in human history, with totalitarianism having been the rule rather than the exception in the past, and tyrants and despots have always taken a dim view of the enslaved masses getting uppity. But once people started backing away from monarchies and dictatorships and education became more widespread, the idea of speaking your mind without fear of dire consequences began to take favor. This of course has achieved its highest expression in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it also has its drawbacks. Hate speech and bigotry which really need to be controlled are in fact protected, and many people are unable to recognize them when they are all gussied up with patriotism and nationalism. Modern-day blights such as telemarketing and pornography are also considered protected forms of speech, although it's pretty difficult to see any benefit coming from their continued existence. So, we take the good with the bad, even if sometimes the bad gets pretty bad.
UPSIDE: Funny truth-tellers like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Joan Rivers. HA! I made that last one up.

7) Internet. Yes indeed I did list the Internet in my previous post about things mankind has done right. But the Internet is such a vast and powerful entity that we need to look at the other side of the coin. I believe the Internet critically needs to be open and free and pretty much unregulated - that is perhaps its greatest strength. But when we open the doors to the world like that, bad things can sneak in, just like if I left my patio doors open and hordes of repulsive vermin like scorpions and spiders would stampede each other to get in. With just a couple of mouse clicks you can, if you are so inclined, wallow in huge amounts of extremely graphic pornography, learn how to build bombs and engage in terrorist activities, be exposed to the most virulent, loathsome hate-speech and bigotry, and fall victim to a whole galaxy of identity-theft schemes. Spam is a vile, cancerous plague that threatens to bring the Internet to a grinding halt. Does all the good that comes from the Internet outweigh the bad? I think it does, but just barely.
UPSIDE: Online bill-paying, emails from good friends, belch videos on YouTube.

Well, that's all I got. I'm getting depressed thinking about this stuff. It's been such a beautiful, cool autumn morning as I sit on my back patio, with a happy little rabbit playing in the outdoor playpen and another lounging contentedly behind a bougainvillea bush. The world can be a beautiful place, it is too bad humans always have to screw it up.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

7 Things We Did Right

I have been informed recently that some of my blog posts have been kind of negative. It seems I am prone to focus too much on the bad things that are happening in the world, and I am always more than willing to accuse the human race of being a bunch of evil, dim-witted, mean-spirited malcontents. They say that "stupid" appears to be my favorite word, and if that is their charge then I am guilty. It's just that I have found more to be worried about in the world and less to be cheerful for. But, never let it be said that I am not open to the criticisms of others, however misinformed and unenlightened they might be. In an attempt to bring a more positive, uplifting mood to this blog, I am going to mention some things that human beings have in fact done correctly and well during their tenure on this fair planet. And, because I just can't resist mentioning them, some of the not-so-good things that have evolved from these strokes of genius:

1) Agriculture. The domestication of plants and later animals permitted early man to stop being nomadic tribes, constantly moving from one source of food to the other, and to stay in one place for an extended period of time. This allowed settlements, villages, towns and later cities and nations to form. Also, it allowed man to manage his crops and increase yield and production.
DOWNSIDE: Fast-food restaurants, diets, Chinese food in a can.

2) Language. The creation of language was a great leap forward in the evolution of humanity. It is quite significant because it indicated an ability to develop abstract concepts, and objects as well as ideas could be quantified and represented by words, which other mammals probably can't do. It also allowed for a means for knowledge to be passed from person to person and was a step forward in man's unceasing quest to bring order to a very chaotic world.
DOWNSIDE: Political speeches, people who won't ever shut up, Valley Girl talk.

3) Writing. After the creation of language the next logical step is to find a way to capture and preserve it. Writing codifies language and makes it more uniform. It also allows learning to be stored and passed intact to other colleagues and also to future generations of people, without relying on fuzzy recollections. Writing is the process that takes thoughts out of our heads and makes them available to everyone else, and that is a big deal.
DOWNSIDE: Penmanship classes in Catholic school, graffiti, plastic pocket protectors.

4) Printing Press. Having a language and a way to write it down turns out to be a good thing, so it stands to reason that being able to do it on a massive scale would be a really great thing. The printing press allowed the written word to be shared inexpensively and efficiently with many, many people who had had no previous access. A long time ago reading and writing were the sole purview of wealthy aristocrats or monks squirreled away in monasteries. With the printing press, learning and knowledge were put in the reach of the general population, which encouraged more reading and learning and the world suddenly expanded for everyone. All this on the day Johannes Gutenberg invented his movable-type press. Also, pornography was invented two days later.
DOWNSIDE: Junk mail, the Arizona Republic, Harlequin romance novels.

5) Media and Mass Communications. After the invention of the printing press, newspapers were not far behind. Newspapers appeared everywhere, and for the first hundred years after the formation of this country were the main way that people learned about their new nation and the world. When radio was invented it created a much more widespread and immediate way to disseminate news and information. The telephone brought wide-area communication into everyone's home, and the invention of television meant that words and pictures from halfway around the world could come beaming into your living room. Now, the whole world and even parts of outer space can be enjoyed in the comfort and privacy of your own boudoir, along with tasty snacks like candy and popcorn.
DOWNSIDE: Telemarketing, conservative talk radio, Fox News Channel

6) Space Exploration. Everyone's eyes turned skyward in the late 1950s when the-then Soviet Union propelled a little, round, antenna-studded metal ball into orbit around the Earth. Sputnik, Russian for "traveling companion", was the first artificial satellite of our world. The space race was on, and it captivated the imagination of everyone as few things ever had before. Discoveries and amazing pictures came fast and thick, all culminating on the stifling July night forty years ago when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon. It was impossible to watch the stunning drama unfold on television and not have an overwhelming sense that a mightily important piece of history was being made. Today, robotic spacecraft have taken us strolling on the surface of Mars, gliding through the rings of Saturn, and out to dip our toes in the frigid edge of interstellar space. I can't wait to see what the next couple of decades will bring, and we are only taking our first baby steps out of our planetary cradle.
DOWNSIDE: Conspiracy dimwits who think the Moon landing was faked, short-sighted morons in Congress who are constantly slashing NASA's budget.

7) The Internet. Not many things have changed our culture and our world as radically, quickly and thoroughly as the Internet. It unites the entire world in an interconnected web of knowledge and communication, and brings incomprehensible amounts of information to everyone's fingertips. The Internet has changed everything, from entertainment to commerce to our daily lives (certainly mine), and has quickly positioned itself as an indispensable part of everything we do.
DOWNSIDE: Spam, computer viruses, Twitter, hackers, long-winded blogs by self-important people with too much time on their... hey WAIT!

These are just some of the things that mankind appears to have done fairly well. There certainly are other things, but I'll end my list with these. Next, I'll take a look at things that mankind has done with all great and good intentions, and somehow (but unsurprisingly) managed to screw up royally.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

This Doesn't Look Good

In case you had somewhat of a bumpy ride in your life the past couple of weeks, some people think it was due to the planet Mercury going through a retrograde. A retrograde is when a planet appears to reverse the direction of its movement through the sky as seen from earth for a short period of time. Normally planets move in a west-to-east direction but due to their differing orbital speeds around the sun, and the fact that our earth is moving around the sun in its own orbit too, sometimes things line up so that it looks like a planet is doing a small loop-de-loop in the sky. This does not happen immediately but over a couple of weeks or months, depending on the planet.

(Click on the above picture to view a larger version)
Astrologers tell us that bad things happen during Mercury retrogrades. The good thing about these retrogrades is they only last a couple of weeks at a time. The bad thing is that that happen fairly often, usually every 3-5 months because Mercury zips around the sun every 88 Earth days. Whether the bad karma of a Mercury retrograde is true or not is debatable, but let's take these things at face value and rejoice in the fact that the latest retrograde ended yesterday, September 29th. Don't get too comfortable because the next retrograde starts the day after Christmas and goes to January 15, 2010.

But whoever is running the Great Karmic Universal Drama that is our lives decided to throw in a whole bunch of bad stuff right at the end of the retrograde. This is some of the stuff we have to deal with, now and in the future, in no particular order:

1) Nuclear Iran - The revelation that Iran has built a secret underground lab in the mountains in the middle of a military base camp - quite the unusual site for what they claim is a commercial power-generation station - is very bad news for an area of the world already critically unstable. One slip-up anywhere and oil gets shut off to the world, immediately scuttling whatever kind of tepid economic recovery we're seeing. That, coupled with Iran's missile capabilities and the completely batshit-crazy Ahmadinejad, who looks like a homeless person who has been huffing paint thinner for 20 years, does not auger well for anyone who has even a passing interest in living on this planet.

2) Earthquake/Tsunami - People always love to blame seismic activity on astrological alignments, and the end of the retrograde gave them a great chance to write off the tsunami that hit American Samoa and the monster quake in western Indonesia yesterday as more evidence that the gods are angry with us. I'm not so sure, because sometimes things just happen in the same time-frame and don't have a causal relationship. That brings up the old adage of there are no coincidences in the universe, stuff always happens for a reason. Maybe they do and maybe they don't, I don't know.

3) Butt bombs - Terrorists have come up with a new, fiendishly effective and wildly bizarre way to blow up people. They have taken to inserting explosives in their rectums along with a detonator that operates like a cell phone. The bomb can be triggered remotely by texting something to it. Recently a terrorist with an implanted bomb got past extremely tight security and nearly assassinated a Saudi prince. Security experts worldwide are fretting that such a bomb is pretty much undetectable by current security measures, and that alone should give everyone pause. Such an explosion in an airliner at 36000 feet would be catastrophic. This is an extremely unsettling and dangerous escalation in the war on terror.

4) Double-dip recession - Economists have been cautiously optimistic that things have been turning in a better direction recently, and we may officially be out of the recession and heading toward positive economic growth. But before we break out the Andre champagne and the Dixie cups, we need to remember that this "recovery" appears to be weak and fragile, and easily reversible. Lots of people don't have jobs and are afraid to spend money, and if people don't start buying stuff companies will not start to create jobs, and around and around it goes. The big fear is that this will be a jobless, double-dip recession, in which the economy will appear to start to recover but then crash again and hit another bottom, before limping back to another weak recovery. Economists put the odds of such a double-dip at 50/50. It looks like we will be dealing with the bad effects of a very sick economy for a long, long time.

Well, there you have it, your entire ration of depressing news in one place, you can thank me later. If you can stand it, throw in the stuff we've been dealing with for a much longer time, such as global warming, environmental degradation, an interminable, rancorous heath care debacle, the looming H1N1 virus season coming soon and the future bankrupting of Social Security and Medicare, and we have a whole plateful of nasty, unpleasant events to contend with. It seems as if this current decade has been one of very drastic, permanent, negative change. Starting with the 9/11 attacks and continuing through the collapse of the U.S. economy and the recession, things in our lives are changing at warp speed, and definitely not for the better.