Wednesday, April 1, 2015

I Guess I'm A Conservative

It's been a long time evolving and has taken even longer for me to admit, but I guess I'm actually a Conservative. It didn't happen overnight.

I drank the Liberal Kool-Aid for years, so convinced I was that to be on the left side of things was the right side.  I was for all of the "right" (I mean left!) causes--the poor, the minorities, the women and all of their issues, the anti war stance, the environment, the social programs to "level the playing field," education reform, and God knows what else.

But a funny thing happened in the last election.  As I watched Republican after Republican sweep into office, I was shouting at the television, especially to lower class white people, "You idiots!  You are voting against your own self-interests!  They've got you caring about issue that have no impact on your life!"

And that was the moment.  Woah, I thought, that's me.  I've been voting against MY own self-interests!  They had me thinking that somehow I was serving the common good and the betterment of society by voting in favor of issues that won't ever affect me at all.

And the switch flipped.  So, I'm still a little rusty at this Conservative thing and I don't have all of the lingo down or anything, but I've been working on where I stand so that you will have no doubt that my new colors are my true colors.  I am a Conservative.  I will be voting that way, for Republcans and Tea Partiers and Libertarians (who I used to call people who are afraid to admit that they are Republicans) and anyone else who is for me.  Here are some of my new positions that I'm trying out:

--Let's be candid: I'm not the 1%, but I am the 5%.  Yeah, me and the wife do well enough.  Well enough that anything that trickles down will at least get to us.  And I've got investments and retirement that aren't always a sure thing, so, yeah, I'm taking any tax cut that comes my way, and I'm not blinking an eye.  I've worked for a long time to get my portfolio where it is and I don't want it to be jeopardized by the whims of the American economy, especially as overseen by a Democrat.  Sure, I've made a ton of money while he has been in office, but there's no guarantee that will continue.  You could probably be in the 5% too, if you worked a little harder.

--Let's say I owned a company that makes plastic forks.  Well, guess what people serve wedding cakes with?  That's right.  Plastic forks.  So, me, I'm a. Christian, and if I had a plastic forks business, those forks would be Christian, too.  The last thing I want is my fork in some gay couple's mouths when they feed each other cake, you know?  As a Christian business owner, I should get to say where that fork goes.  Even if I don't have any forks.  That is not the point.

--Let's be careful here, but I don't know if you've worked around women.  I have.  And in my 32 year experience, they talk a lot.  My office has secretaries on both sides, and they are always going into each other's offices to talk.  I've even come in early, and, since they get to work before us, I've heard them talking about us and the stuff we do.  They are not very respectful.  I don't think they should make as much as we do, which is right, because they don't.  Because they are secretaries, uh, administrative assistants.

--The older I get, the more I think it would be cool to have a gun.  I want to be able to fire one.  I think it would be cool to go to a range on the weekends and put those glasses and goggles on and then have the targets come towards me.  In case targets ever come towards me, which they have, in my house, but I didn't have a gun and so I had to yell and scared them away that way.  A gun would be much more decisive.

Those are just a few of the new places where I stand.  Soon, I'll be quitting the recycling that I'm doing, going to church a whole lot more, thanking our servicemen and our men in blue, and not worrying about that guy at the gas station, the black woman I see pulled over when everyone else is speeding, or the woman who cleans my office who tells me it's a good month when she is able to save  $10.  Why did she get a minimum wage job anyway?  Those pay crap.  Why doesn't she go back to school.

Oh, well, this world has a lot of problems for those who won't help themselves and there isn't a whole lot that I can do about it.  We got to find a way for them to get some internal motivation.  Still, it's kind of sad to see them, but I realize now that is is just weakness on my part and helps them not at all.    It's like my white, heterosexual friend said about that new law in Indiana: "I'm not going to change my vacation plans over it."  He's right.  It's our world and we need to get to as much of it as we can.  The safe parts, anyway.

Beach Thoughts

Beach Thought #1: Connected

Two teenage girls walk past me, some 20 feet closer to the ocean, their feet sploshing in the thinnest of ocean water at the edge of the tide. They are talking about God only knows, but probably friend stuff, like boys or clothes or that band that had that song. The only item on their person was their smartphone.

After observing days of humans walking the Florida beach, one thing more clearly divides people into two groups than any other, and that's the smartphone.

If you are 12-30 and female, you are walking the beach with a smartphone in your hand. If you are that age and male, you probably have it in a pocket if you have it at all. But it's not essential. The guys seem as . Beyond a certain age, you keep it in a handbag or something, or you don't even bring it to the beach, or you don't even have one to begin with.

Nothing about this observation is original, but the obviousness of it seemed so stark on the beach, a setting where everything seems to beckon you to seek simplicity, to exist non-electric. Single-gear bikes, old school fishing poles, towels and coolers, simple folding chairs and minimal clothing.

In these surroundings, the smartphone stands out in the starkest of contrasts. Having it be the only item on your person as you walk the beach says so very much about how we think of being connected. The older people think of being connected to nature, or to themselves, or to a book (and, arguably, imagination). The younger people might think of all this, but what they most value is being connected to everything that is not directly within their reach. The people who aren't with them, the information that is not in the moment all that relevant, the music not of the ocean but of that band that had that song, traveling through their tiny phone speakers.

Beach Thought #2: The Strangeness of People Watching

The stunning, modelesque 20-something woman who walks onto the beach, disrobes, tans for exactly an hour, exactly 30 minutes on each side, gets dressed and leaves. She traveled all the way (however long that was) to the beach so she could lie down there and tan. (And yes, I realize this says far more about me and what I find odd than it says about this woman.)

The old over-tanned man with the pot belly, bicycling leisurely down the beach on a machine straight out of the New Belgium logo, except with a parakeet riding on his handlebars.

The old man pulling an old cart of fishing poles and other items, wheels squeaking as if it were a dying ice cream truck or a carnival freak. He pulls it into the tide, possibly in the hopes that the water might keep the wheels from shrieking at such a painful volume. His septuagenarian friend walking in pace with him from the sand, apparently finding it not the least bit odd that his pal was slogging through the water and fragile soggy sand, apparently seeing no need to lend him a hand. 

Beach Thought #3: Fiction?

Not 20 yards from where our beach house exited onto the beach, amidst the dunes, a woman around my age had parked her old school bike and draped her towel over it to create a sort of shade block in which she was lying down. She was looking up into the sky and smoking a cigarette. By the time she got back on her bike an hour or so later, she'd smoked at least a half dozen, probably more.

I imagined her having told her husband or live-in boyfriend that she was going to take her daily ride on the beach. She does this every day, under the guise of getting her exercise, leaving her condo on that bike, riding a few hundred yards down the beach to this hidden dune, where she smokes and wonders what happened to the life she thought she'd be living by now. She just knows this bike ride that's not really a bike ride is the most liberating part of her day. She knows that the sky looks different every day, as her smoke rings rise up to the clouds above.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Return Of Jim Dandy

As part of my now-monthly ritual of getting this blog to 12 posts a month, I offer up my second helping of random, gathered thoughts that have little bearing on each other.  The good news? It's like getting 8 blogposts in one!  The bad news?  Some of these thoughts are probably outright pointless or stupid.

1. Are my fingerprints on file somewhere?  I don't have any crimes or arrests to my name so far, but I've been wondering if there wasn't some kind of Cub Scout project way back when and we went to a police station and got fingerprinted.  And it probably would have seemed pretty neat at the time, if it happened.  Now, of course, if they are still my prints, I'd just as soon they stay mine.

2.  If you drive in southern Georgia, you may encounter a billboard in I-75 that reads "#Secede."  I suppose I could have tracked down the website to see what the sponsoring organization, Society Of The South or some such, but is there any need?  154 years after that first secession, states like Georgia and those that surround it, like mine, want to restrict rights in the name of the Federal government, by God, can't tell us what to do.  Progress?

3.  One of the pleasures of spending a few days in a more tropical climate is encountering the unique flora.  One humid morning, we paused in front of a Bird Of Paradise plant, that origami-like creation of bright reds and yellows, and greens that makes you wonder if the Creator Of Plants felt more creative in warmer climes.

4.  Human adults have a genetic disposition against carpooling.  You can see it in a city like Atlanta if you get in the HOV lane ( which means you have bragging rights for at least two people in your car) and pass car after car after car in the afternoon morass and you start working math problems in your head, like, if there were two people in each car instead of one, how much would speed increase on the crawling highway?

5. HBO's Vice, which I must claim has either been under marketed or mis-marketed, is a brilliant representation of Szymborska's lines: "We're extremely fortunate/ not to know/ precisely/ the kind of world we are living in."  In two 15-minute reporting vignettes each episode, the show illuminates how some trouble spot of the world is far worse than you thought it was.  While you might be inclined to think, why would I want to watch that, like any impressive wreck, it is hard to look away, and you come away oddly amazed that the whole human endeavor is even holding together as well as it is.

6.    The most amazing aspect of the NCAA tournament for me each year is how I, like so many others, can get so caught up for one team that I am living and dying during every possession of a game whose teams I don't really know and have previously cared about even less.  I watched no college basketball game, other than silent visual in the background in a bar, the entire year.  I know none of the players.  I can't explain the phenomenon.

7.  Many people like to shop when on vacation.  I suppose I am no different, except that I am.  All of my purchases are comestibles-- cheeses, tomatoes and other produce, grapefruits, vinegars and wine musts, Trader Joe's staples, jams and pastes, etc.  I've discovered that my vacation "souvenirs" tend to be items that might allow me to recreate some of the tastes of the vacation place. It's a strange habit that fills cupboards, refrigerators, and freezers.

8.  Here's a study in human nature:  a large pink ball of the type you would encounter in a large wire bin in a Wal-Mart, a cheap toy, shows up in the yard of a house where four boys live.  Being boys, their home and yard are filled with sports balls of various sorts--soccer, basketball, rubber balls, dodge balls.  But this plastic pink ball, this mysterious visitor, suddenly holds sway over all.  Each boy wants to hold it, bounce it dribble it.  Each boys wants his time with it, while all other balls lie fallow.  Arguments spring up endlessly, with grabbing, wrestling, poking, trying to tip the ball away.  Because no boy has ownership, all have both full rights and none.  The smooth pink ball has disrupted the entire home.  One suspects that when the boys get home from school, they will each look for it.  Perhaps one of them has hidden it, but as soon as he emerges with it, all will want time with it.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Lazy Business

If you owned a business, which I don't, would you allow that business to slip into complacency, into a  harried or bare-bones operation that did not show your best "product"?  I observed just that in a couple of establishments down here in Florida.

The first was a sports bar, a pretty popular one, at least during these final stages of the NCAA tournament.  We watched both "Sweet Sixteen" and "Elite Eight" games there, and so experienced the operation when it should have been hitting all cylinders.

It didn't.

In my personal experience, the potato skins were bland and swamped in cheese, the fries were cooked in old oil, the chips that came with the salsa were slightly stale, the salsa itself was overwhelmed by grated onion, the pizza was okay, the beer came pretty regularly.  Of course, there is a deeper question: is the restaurant always like this?  Is the salsa always heavy on the onion juice?  Were the "Harbor Fries" or whatever they were called always holding excess oil?

The other business is a deli down the road.  We entered it for a Sunday lucn and encountered an all-teenage staff who, as my wife kept saying, were "very nice."  No argument here.

But they couldn't really work the cash register, especially when the paper ran out.  They couldn't quite process that my wife just wanted a cheese hoagie, didn't know what to charge for it. They talked me into adding a number of things to my chicken cheesesteak, and then discovered that they were out of most of them.  And when it came time to make the sandwiches, which we could watch, there was no "assembly line," no plan, just three people haphazardly assisting with different parts of two sandwiches.  How, my wife wondered, would they handle a lunch rush?

The sandwiches, when they came, were fine.  By then, another man was waiting for a to-go order, while two of the three employees were huddled over a laptop, charting out their hours for the week, blocking the drink machine.  And everything was getting done, albeit casually.

Maybe this what Sunday at a deli is like.  Maybe when a sports bar is super busy, they throw quality control out the window and just get the food out, trusting that as long as the beer is cold and delivered regularly, no one will say much about the rest of it.

And, actually, if you checked either of these places on Yelp or Trip Advisor, you would confirm that what I witnessed is kind of business as usual, perhaps not the result of off days and busy nights. Lots of comments on the bar food as being "kind of average," on service at the deli as "slow."

I just wonder why.  We live now in a world that will tell you what it thinks of you whether you want to know or not, often publicly, sometimes cruelly.  Is it an acceptable response to not even try when problems are pointed out?  Many of us say yes.  Many of us say "F--- it."  We see, perhaps correctly, people as trolls, criticisms as unfair.  We live in a defensive posture.

But I don't see how a business can take that approach.  To accept your own status quo as a subpar establishment, presumably because you are making enough money or unwilling to invest in making yourself better will eventually spell doom.  Maybe you even find the quirks of your small, local business charming.  Just know that there is someone larger, more corporate, with a business plan eyeing your establishment and planning to satisfy every dissatisfaction of your current customers.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Working Weekend

Some work feels good.

I had a working weekend last weekend, and though it took me a couple of days to recover from it, it felt good.  Why?  Because Spring is in the air and Spring means going outside and tending to external things--yards, plants, fallen branches, new plantings.  In short, all of the ways that Sping, in Nature, is a rebirth.

That first cutting of grass was a joyous occasion, though I promise myself that feeling will not last.  We hired some people to take a "scorched Earth" approach to our back yard, and now, missing trees and seedlings and months later, we have both sun and grass back there.  So cutting the verdant grass and clover and alfalfa back there, taming it for the first time, if you will, had a special feel to it, almost like a welcome.  You are now a yard.  Before you were weeds sprouting in the shade.

Sun also means, for me, that I can grow things to eat.

And so, raspberries.  And blackberries.  For the first time ever, besides a fig tree set backwards by outrageous temperatures the last two years, I am planning to grow fruit.  I bought five plants at Ace Hardware, as well as the requisite soil and peat moss, and I started some berry vines on the path of what I hope will be a long and beautiful friendship.

To do that, I needed a fence and some holes that I would have to dig.  And dug.  And if you are not used to digging holes, mixing peat and soil, as I am not, you are going to feel it for a few days.  Some work feels good.

Each day since, I have walked to the edge of my yard to look for evidence that those roots have taken hold.

Oh, and a garden in the backyard, where there was none.  Early ambition had me renting a tiller and digging up a 22 x 12 plot, but then I thought, what if it doesn't all grow?  What if rushing to prepare the soil undercuts my effort?  So I took the old shell of a sandbox that has languished in my backyard for over 20 years and maneuvered it to what I hope is a prime location (not yet confident about the path of the sun) and, while looking around, focused on all of the dead leaves,vs ticks, and pine needles covering parts of the yard, and thought, why not rake up all of this and let it provide drainage on the front end and rich, organic material down the road?  (Actually, my wife raked it up and I spread it inside.)

Yes, a weekend of bending and lifting, digging and lifting, carrying and planting, pulling and yanking, digging and hauling, gathering and spreading.  All using muscles not used much during the cold months, muscles that would alert me to their fatigue for several days.

But no matter, for all of this work points to one thing and one thing only:  hope.  We never know if what we put in the ground will yield anything.  But we hope.  And that makes some work feel good, at least for now.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Is Love Greed?

Love, love, love,
Love is just greed
It's almost taken me
But now I can see
Love, love, love,
Love is just greed
A selfish little need
You follow or you lead
If we really love ourselves,
how do you love somebody else?

-- Love Is Greed, Passion Pit

Passion Pit is an annoying younger step-brother of my music collection. I wrote less kind words about Gossamer when it came out in 2012, but my appreciation for Passion Pit has… matured. In small doses of one or two songs, they can be downright palatable. (By contrast, more than two measures of Owl City stirs in me a deep nausea.)

Last week, this song played while I was randomly shuffling through my collection, and it caught my ear. The chorus is catchy enough, and then the lyrics sort of spit out at you, daring you to pay attention. And I found myself annoyed.

The last song I remember having such a defensive and frustrated initial reaction to was Admiral Fallow’s “Isn’t This World Enough?” While that song expresses their stance that notions of a deity are foolhardy, “Love is Greed” goes one step more brash and attacks the notion of love itself.

That chorus is enough to turn a lover into a fighter. The song has the unmitigated gall to question the very engine that makes the world go ‘round, according to almost everything in the Western canon of literature, music and marketing!

Having listened to the song several dozen more times since rediscovering it, and having engaged in many internal debates about the song’s message, I’ve come to a number of conclusions:

ONE: Anyone old enough and experienced enough knows that Love Isn’t Any Single Thing. It’s lots of things, many of them contradictory, some of them vague, a small few of them specific and concrete. As such, Love is not Greed, at least not in a singular exclusive sort of way. Love Is Not Merely Greed.

TWO: Anyone who has listened to enough music knows that Love, in all of its complex mystery and glory and horror, cannot be easily summarized in a single song, not even one of “Bohemian Rhapsody” length, not even by a lyrical poet like Bob Dylan or my favorite champion of grown-up wisdom, Lori McKenna. As such, Love Is Greed is one part of the elephant, and just about as much of the elephant as a single blind man can touch.

THREE: The song frustrates and makes me defensive because much of what it claims is, on some disturbing level, true, especially in how we often approach our notions of at least four of “the Six Greek Words for Love”: eros, ludus, philia, and philautia. Arguably even agape and pragma. Eros (lust) is often very selfish, but it was also supposedly feared by the Greeks because it was so closely associated with a loss of self-control. In that way, Eros is the heroin (not heroine) of Love and is arguably the kind of love most clearly in the target sites of this song.

FOUR: Any song that inspires me to go back and review all of the Greek words and meanings for love, that gets me thinking about how much of love is about selfishness and greed, that has me taking inventory of my own life and how my expressions of these various forms of love might be received and perceived, is a song that deserves to move higher on my playlist.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Searching for Woodpeckers

In this, my 57th year, I realized that I had never seen a woodpecker.  It didn't just hit me for no reason, and, now, it is no longer true.  But it came about because each day, in these weeks leading up to spring, I could hear the woodpeckers out on a tree, their short, staccato bursts of beak work carrying across the yards whenever I was outside.

And then I realized that it was my tree, my yard, where the woodpecker was working.

Woodpeckers, I think I remember, like to hammer into dead bark and wood, looking for insects to feed upon.  In my backyard sits a large, old Black Walnut tree that continues to bloom and produce nuts ( which will stain your hands something awful), but which has plenty of dead, rotting limbs, too.

For the longest time, I could hear them, but not see them.  The tree reaches way above the roof of the house, and even with no leaves, its web of branches against the sky gave me a hundred different places to look.  And the pecking, with its repeated stops and starts, didn't allow me to use my ears to locate the birds.

There were two of them, I thought, because one sounded like a wooden toc toc, and the other what I imagined to be a more classic, wood pecking sound--flatter, like knock on a door.  And they took turns.  Maybe one stood guard while the other one pecked.

Usually, though, if one has the patience to look long enough at something, he will see what he is looking for.  I was looking for movement, because that was my only chance of finding the bird.  And one time, I was staring close enough to where I needed to stare, noth through any system or zeroing in on the sounds.  And there was the woodpecker.

It skipped nervously around a branch in the front of the tree (from where I stood, front and back often not applying to nature), a branch whose bark had mostly fallen off in those half-cylinders I'd find when cutting the grass.  I could see at least its head, could see that piston-like beak dip and hammer nine times, by my count.  Then again, and for as long as was apparently fruitful, and then it disappeared to the back side of the branch.  And there the sound changed, hollowed.  It had been just one bird, after all.

They are much smaller birds than I had expected.  I had been thinking Cardinal-sized, not sparrow, especially to produce that deep sound that I had been hearing from some distance, a species with the constant twitches of smaller birds, ever vigilant, ever moving.

While I has assumed that their habitat has some exotic quality to it, it was really nothing more than an age-worn tree, too large and expensive to be pruned of its spent limbs.

Mostly, it was the seeing that has stuck with me.  I hear the woodpeckers most mornings and afternoons, but I haven't been trying to locate them.  It is as if I needed to find them once, to know their size and how they work, and to be able to fit that into my small understanding of the confines of my yard, to know what I needed of what and who is here with me.