Three Dog Days of Summer

It’s hard to say just how cool I thought Three Dog Night’s version of “Mama Told Me Not to Come” was back when it was released and to which I sat listening on the thick shag carpet of my older brother’s basement bedroom playing The Game of Life and surrounded by his LOVE, PEACE and eyeball wallpaper, not to mention Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and maybe surprisingly Steve Gibbons albums passed out on the floor; all this beneath his drop ceiling above which he hid a huge bag of some of the worst ditch weed imaginable – weed, no doubt, actually found in a ditch by some county road near Brainerd and if you really didn’t want to get high you’d smoke a bunch of this shit; and outside his egress-ed window was an old stone wall on the other side of which was a vacant lot where we built an underground fort inside of which we kept a couple of found Playboy and a Oui (French, baby) magazines (back in those days you could occasionally find Playboys or pages from Playboys on the street and I’ve no idea why nor why you no longer do) that appeared to have survived three thunderstorms and burial in dirt for decades and to which the older boys tossed off to now shockingly innocent images lit by candles and choked by incense and the younger boys went inside confused; this fort we decided to protect and what better way than to pound six inch nails through two-by-fours and hide them in the long grass to “catch” anyone trying to get to our fort; one particular nail on which I stomped because I was told to “run and get more nails” and stabbed it up, in and out my right foot leading to nothing more than a tetanus shot and pissed off parents, but 70s parents who then told us,“Don’t be a baby and go back out and play with the others”; and we would walk across the street to Lake Calhoun where there was the Black beach on the north end where they washed and waxed their cars to Stevie Wonder, the gay beach on the east end where they lay sunning to disco, and the hippy beach right in front of us on the southwest side and where I walked with my mom years before and asked, “Why do they all share the same cigarette?” and to which she replied, “They’re poor”, and they looked poor; the lake where I saw a bus stop and 50 Jesus-looking dudes descend down the steps and walk in line in white robes and beards and long hair, handing out pamphlets and clasping their hands in front of them or holding them palms up as if praising the sun or hoping for rain, and looking probably more like one of the dudes from Three Dog Night or Mott the Hoople than the historical Jesus who would have been much blacker; the lake that in those days pretty much no one ran around because pretty much no one ran around anything at all, but we did, and in Converse shoes that totally suck as shoes – unless you’re in some sort of alt-something band and think it’s cool to wear the sort of sucky shoes that we had to wear because that was the only choice besides PF Flyers and they were a little better and while this is when Nike and Pumas and Tigers came out no half-way decent parent was going to pay that much money for tennis shoes for their kids (they’re kids, for god’s sake!); the sort of shoes that we all buy for ourselves, kids and infants now because we’ve become such a bunch of suckers and rubes. Open up the window, sucker, let me catch my breath.

Where Comes Inspiration?

I was born in November 1963 which puts me in the last years of the Baby Boomers or the very first years of Generation X – depending upon who you ask. My older relatives then, those of my same generation, were boomers essentially and those to whom I looked for all things cool – music especially. So my sensibilities were formed around bands from the sixties and seventies – Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Hendrix, Doors, Floyd, Zeppelin, Byrds, and the like. My coming of age however really happened throughout the seventies (I was 7 – 17) and while that is a decade often derided for it’s music it actually introduced us to heavy metal, the ska revival, punk rock, glam rock, electronic, ambient, hip hop and new wave – a staggering line up of musical styles and movements to emerge in a single decade.

We knew at the time that the music was amazing but didn’t really realize that it was a sort of perfect storm winding up all around us. However it was extremely short lived and while buckets of great music have been made since, much of that is derived quite directly from one or more of those styles. Certainly all music is derived to some degree from that which preceded it, but a brand new musical style that leaps ahead and brings with it a new sound, corresponding fashion, attitude and so on, seems to be eluding us. Something is missing and I have no clear idea what that is. …

Certainly, the sixties and seventies saw generations of young people who had an almost grim determination to not be like their parents. There was a distrust of the System (Vietnam and Nixon both taught us that despite the fact that we elect these folks and that they are OUR leaders, they can be wrong, criminal and criminally wrong). There was a sense from civil rights and the women’s movement that ALL people need to be respected and have some sort of equal chance at the good life, jobs, education and so on. It was also not lost on us at the time that growing up white and middle to upper class in America gave us every advantage in the world and that nothing could essentially change that. We all took off with a fifty yard start in the 100-yard dash of life and success.

I don’t know this to be fact but it feels like much of that has been forgotten or never learned recently, The somewhat anemic Occupy protests were a welcome attempt but never galvanized around any issue and felt more like some sort of flash mob than anything else. The only other rage in this country right now comes from my contemporaries – those who also grew up with same advantages that most of the rest of the world (now and throughout all of history) would simply roll over and die for – and is inspired not by their sense of injustice for the poor, women, the downtrodden or any others, but because they feel they pay too much taxes. We, of course, pay the lowest of all western nations. What happened to their sense of gratitude and thankfulness for their lot in life eludes many of the rest of us.

However, maybe the next generation – those who are in diapers now – will grow up so appalled by the niggardly among us that they will burst out with something totally new. Maybe our self-righteous avarice will be exactly what they rebel against and bring back that desire and demand for real truth, fairness, justice for all and a return to a maybe mythic American way when people came together, compromised, helped the poor and wretched, and thought more about how much they have and how much they can share than how much they get to keep all to themselves. A time when your country and conscience came before your party. Maybe even a resurgence of the real Christianity that teaches us to give away our riches, rather than hoard them and complain when we are asked to give.

And maybe not.

I’ve always felt that greed is the basis if all evil. It will never go away. But maybe, just maybe, the next generation will see it for what it really is and at the very least use it to artistically blow our musical minds like The Specials, Kraftwerk, Eno, Sex Pistols, Bowie, and Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five did. Have at it, kiddies! We need you desperately.

Dinner at the DeLillo’s

“Please pass the ketchup.”
“Please pass the ketchup.”
“The ketchup.”
“Catsup. Cat soup.”
“Feline sopa de plasticine.”
“Midwestern salsa picante.”
“Mediocre mastication ameliorator.”
“The soft blop of the hardy tomato.”
“The spurt. The splooge.”
“A condimental climax.”
“Yes. Yes. Yes!”
“Yes.”
“Pass the fucking ketchup.”
“Okay.”

All Hail the Essayist – Or Why News Skews and the Warlord [Name] Might Not be Such a Bad Guy

One thing I try to do (and often fail at) is get most of my information about important people, places, ideas and things from essayists; meaning, to me, writers who research more, take longer to consider, write in greater depth, and, generally, are less bent on convincing anyone of their particular opinion. That is not to say they are without opinion (and some great essays are very much drenched in opinion), but their opinions are, again, better researched, have more depth, and therefore generally more thoughtful. They also show an awareness and respect for opinions that don’t line up with theirs. I find that that sort of thoughtful approach generally leads to a better understanding of the depth and nuances of the subject about which they write.

Without even bothering to talk about the FOX News and MSNBC’s unashamedly biased silliness (a silliness that has it’s place, mind you, but it’s place is to entertain and not to inform), I think that, in general, news skews, and even when they are not trying to skew necessarily. It’s more a result of taking a tiny piece of a story – that which is news and so that which happened recently – and putting it out there all by itself. Even with the obligatory set-up and few paragraphs of background, the gist of the story then acts as a sort of soundbite that is ingested like a potato chip and often misconstrued as a balanced meal. Imagine a headline like “Warlord bombs tiny village – women and children among dead.” The first few paragraphs would be explanatory of exactly what happened – “Forces allied with the [Name], the [place] warlord, bombed a tiny village in [name], leaving [xx] people dead – among them [x] men and women, many of whom were elderly, and [x] children. The bombing took place during a battle the [other name] forces for…”

That is generally about as far as many of us will read, if in fact, we get beyond the headline at all. So we walk away with “Warlord is evil and [other name] forces are good.” Even if the reporting is accurate, and despite the fact that killing women and children (let alone any innocents) is certainly very, very wrong, and without my making up various scenarios where it might not be necessarily the wrongest wrong…coming to the conclusion that the  Warlord is evil might be quite far from the truth. But the news story did the best it could, and maybe buried down in the article, if it was long enough, we could find a bit more background to explain that.

Like the constant barrage of economic figures tossed our way – “the biggest drop in unemployment since 2008” – these sorts of news stories are but a tiny slice in time and provide absolutely no context. “But 2008 is only four years ago and our country is 235+ years old – our economy even older, how does the biggest drop in the last four mean anything whatsoever, beyond the fact that five years ago we had a bigger drop?” It’s like peeking through the blinds of a ballroom for three seconds and walking away thinking you have some idea of what took place that night at the ball.

To those who would argue, “I’m busy. I don’t have an hour to read an essay on that.” I would contend that if you skipped the news and saved that time up, you might find that you do have time enough to read the essay and gain a much better understanding of the subject. And you pick and choose. We are so inundated with news now that we sometimes feel like we need to know what’s going on everywhere. You can’t. So pick your battles. If you have strong opinions about something – focus there. If you’re of a serious political bent – know all sides of the argument inside and out. If you love American history or have family from from Eastern Europe and are concerned about what happens there – read essays on American History and/or Eastern Europe.

Obviously, I’m making this all sound rather easy and of course it’s not. A person needs to know where to find the essays, then get to know those who write on those subjects, then actually sit down and read them. And work went late, and the kids have homework and hockey, the lawn needs mowing, the in-laws are coming … so flipping on the television news, turning to your Google news (which is in a constant state of tailoring – deciding for you, thank you very much – the news stories you see) or glancing at the newspaper (if you are among the dwindling few who do), it seems is all we can pull off sometimes.

And yet, now, at a time when the complexity of our world seems to be expanding exponentially (or is that just a result of our internet-abled seeming awareness of absolutely everything?), our main source of information is the most simplistic imaginable – the 24-hour news station. The great dumbing down began in earnest in the last couple of decades and it’s taking hold. NBC News “In Depth”, I remember I timed some years back, was about four minutes long. In depth, indeed.

Focusing on essays rather than the general popular news outlets also allows you to miss out on all the news stories that we are bombarded with that really have no impact whatsoever on our lives – or most anyone else for that matter. “There’s Pink Slime in our Fast Food!” Wait a minute, fast food’s not healthy? “Snooki’s Pregnant!” Wait a minute, Snooki’s a girl?

And beyond that, grisly multiple murders are grisly and horrible, but if it happens a thousand miles away, beyond hearing about it, should I, or better yet, do I need to know more? Are the details relevant to me? Or are there better ways to spend my time than hearing about how “the gunman entered the building through a back door and went first up the stairs to the office of his former boss who was on the phone with his wife wearing a shirt with the company logo when the gunman opened fire and shot the 48-year-old father of two eleven times leaving behind a grisly scene of…”

There was a time when essayists were the bee’s knees for a larger share of the literate public, and the essay itself, considered one of the great forms of writing. And while among a small population, that may still be the case, essays have fallen out of favor for the general public. We modern folk like everything, information and learning included, to be quick, convenient and easy to chew – not unlike pink slime.

But there are always great essayists writing and we have oodles of them right now – and some of them decidedly hip! The late David Foster Wallace made much of his name with his book of essays, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” – which was great fun! I’m currently reading “Pulphead” by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and have gleaned a more intelligent and thoughtful understanding of Christian Rock (of which all I used to be able to say was – ha ha – it’s an oxymoron), reality tv, Michael Jackson and Constantine Rafinesque (Who? Exactly.). My Atlantic and Harper’s magazines arrive monthly and keep me in good essays throughout the years (the latter skewing pretty liberal; the former a bit more centrist).

So it’s not all smarty-pants whatsoever. Essays can be great fun!

But I still do contend that if you want to understand something in some depth, you need to approach and study it in some depth, and essays provide that opportunity while being entertaining in the hands of those who know what they’re doing. And they’re not as long as non-fiction books!

So all hail the essayists. Let’s make them rich and famous rather than Snooki and the mass murders, and make ourselves as informed as we are opinionated.

My Metric Education

This article absolutely cracked me up only because it never occurred to me that as I read nutrition labels I wasn’t really converting anything whatsoever and knowing what I was ingesting, but instead just comparing metric with metric, label with label, which left me entirely in the dark as to anything other than how one can of soda compares to another, etc. I’m guessing that there are many here among us who are in the same boat.

That being said, I’m still a fan of the metric system and would love to see us embrace it, but culturally it is a ninety-degree uphill battle, I fear. What I do know – and I learned this way back in the seventies – is that the 165 gram frisbee is best for windy days and that 7 grams is a quarter ounce (which I also learned in the seventies).