Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Daily Regimen For Liberals In 2016

Liberals have gotten lazy.  Heading into Obama's 8th year in the White House, we have become complacent and self-critical.  Despite enjoying the work of a man who I am convinced is the greatest president of my lifetime, we have become snippy and unsatisfied and jaded and unmotivated.  Even if we don't know that things, so far, have turned out better than we could have hoped, we still want more AND we aren't willing to do anything to get it.  We just want to sit back and talk about what should or could happen.  Well, that isn't the way it works.  Obama won 7 years ago because he had the best organized, most modern campaign that America had ever seen, both on the ground and in cyberspace.  But since then, we've gotten flabby.  We expect others to do it for us.

Now, of course, we are in that window where preference for candidates is divided and petty sniping follows at all levels.  It is the most dangerous time,cthevtime when things are said that can't be taken back.

So here is a daily/weekly/monthly regimen to get back on track.  Following these simple steps will reinvigorate you:

1.  Your goal each and every day should be to plan to vote and to remind everyone that you know of a reasonable like mind that they have the same obligation, nay, imperative.

2.  As your stretch in the morning, remind yourself that a Republican president will repeal Obamacare almost immediately.  Remind yourself that in the years since it passed, the Republicans have never offered a viable alternative.  They don't want to create; they only want to destroy.

3. As your morning aerobic exercise, remind yourself that the next president might easily nominate three new Supreme Court justices.  If that doesn't get your heart rate up when you ponder the conservative version of these appointments, then you are working out hard enough.

4.  Pick up a copy of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and devote several weeks exercising your mind with this very plausible cautionary tale that merges a U.S. Government drifting towards theocracy with an untended environment laden with chemicals and additives that drives down birth rates.  Factor in the assault on women already happening.

5.  Plan to support whoever the nominee is.  It could go either way.  Acknowledge that your opinions of the candidates have been more shaped by a profit-driven media than by your own work reading and researching.  If you "just don't trust Hillary" or if you "think Bernie can't win," know that someone else put those ideas in your head.

6.  Don't get into it with Trump or Cruz or Rubio supporters, with NRA-driven rationalizers, with those who do not understand the separation of church and state, with the brainwashed FOXers or the newly-anointed Trumpers.  You know that nothing will change from those conversations, except that your blood pressure will go up and you will distracted.

7.  Live your beliefs.  It is so easy to get involved in helping the poor or homeless, supporting disadvantaged children, clothing and supplying those in need.

8.  Most of us don't know much about political volunteerism, so don't worry about it.  Just remind yourself that it is your vote and the votes of those who, you can influence (to vote) that matter most.

If everyone voted, we wouldn't be having this conversation.  Don't let anything undermine that.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

How To Read The New Yorker (or any other magazine)

You think that this doesn't apply to you, and maybe it doesn't.  In this digital age, maybe you no longer subscribe to any magazines and so the whole concept is now foreign to you.  But I'll bet you still have at least a couple of straggler magazines coming to your house.  Maybe they were Christmas gifts.

Me, I've got 4 cooking magazines, my formerly-college-aged daughter's ongoing subscription to Entertainment Weekly, and all of the "house and home" magazines my wife gets coming to my house.  Plus The New Yorker.

The New Yorker, along with The Atlantic Monthly, is, arguably, the finest large subscription magazine being published in America today.  I have no idea how large that subscription base is, but I do know that I jumped back in this year, and have not regretted that for a second.  Like those Atlantic readers, anyone who reads The New Yorker is better informed from a political, artistic, literary, cultural perspective than those who don't read.  But it's become a challenge.

The New Yorker comes every single week of the year, except when they double up for special issues, and if you don't read, the next issue will jab you with guilt when you open your mailbox.

My advice is this:

1.  Read the magazine back to front.  I learned this from Entertainment Weekly, where I discovered that I often wanted to see the reviews most.  The fluff was in the front.  In The New Yorker, it's the specific-to-New-York stuff that's in the front.  If you are lucky enough to live there, more power to you, but if you're not, those items about plays, performances, restaurants, and "About Town" are reading luxuries for someone with more time than I have.

2.  Read the magazine in one sitting.  Get it and commit to it, probably the sooner after it has arrived, the better.

3.  Remind yourself that you don't have to read a magazine cover to cover for it to be worth your while.  If the movie review is too esoteric, skip it.  Same with the books.  The short story may not grab you.  You may not understand the poem(s).  Maybe only one of the feature stories connects with you.  But in my experience through several subscriptions to The New Yorker, this never happens all at once.  Even a majority of these things have never happened in a single issue.

4.  Plus, there are the cartoons.  Just working through the cartoons and illustrations is a worthy endeavor, worth a chuckle, a knock on the side of the head epiphany, an irony more sophisticated than your own, a show the cartoon to someone else moment.

5.  The single reading of the magazine is not meant for the bathroom, even for the most glacier-like of us in terms of bowel movements.  No, it's a commitment of a singular sort, a kind of old fashioned "I'm going to take 45-60 minutes to sit down and read a magazine.  Sitting on a seat with a hole in the middle of it for that long will give you a serious case of hemorrhoids.

After some time away from them, I'm glad to be back to living with magazines.  But the last piece of advice is about when you're finished.  Magazines don't keep, even though people like me and my wife want to keep them.  Oh, they'll be happy to stay with you, but they'll pile up in bookcases, shelves, baskets, and bathrooms once you tell yourself that you plan to read them again.  But you won't.  The news is stale, the initiative has been undermined by the next week's visit to the mailbox, and you don't have the time.  Recycle them!

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Dance of Love

There are some people irritated with me right now.  Children.  Students.  You see, I am the face of a decision to cancel a dance, to err on the side of caution in the face of a forecast of snow and ice and cold.  The cold came, the snow and ice not as much.

But youth is not about caution and will rarely understand it. Which is the way we were and often how it should be.

The source of their consternation?  An open Saturday night?  The fact that their dancing shoes must stay in the cupboard collecting dust?  Not really.  Think about it.  This is about love, like, and romance.  For, suddenly, the world of teenage romance has been turned topsy-turvy.

The dance has been rescheduled for five weeks from now, and in the world of teenage relationships, five weeks is an eternity:

--what does the boy who asked the girl to go as a first date to a safe group setting do now and for 33 days?

--what about the girl who told me last night that she was done with this boy but was going with him just to be nice?

--how about the guy who already knows he wants to ask a different girl from the same school because he was pressured by the first girl's friends into taking her?

--or the girl who screwed up her courage to ask a boy to what started as a Sadie Hawkins dance?  Is that still on?  Will he ask her?

Depending on what grade they are in, some of these students won't have any of the same friends in five weeks.  Will the same dress work?  Even those in stable relationships don't know if they or their dates will be free that night.  The groups going to dinner together will be different; the options for those only pretending to go to the dance or staying just a short while may not present the same opportunities.

We tend to forget that people at this age are trying everything out, that a constant state of flux is the norm of their social world.  The alliances, teamwork, subterfuge, and behind-the-scenes dealing is no less dramatic than a season of Survivor.

We, on the other hand, we of the long relationships and marriages, well, if we are no longer wanting or wanted in five weeks, almost certainly we've seen that coming, or should have, for maybe five months or five years.

Do we long for those days when a relationship might be forged in a single dance, or does this postponement I'm talking about, that tempestuous mess of young love that was exhausting, that we spent nearly always off-kilter, searching for the meaning of the smallest gestures and then second-guessing ourselves every time we thought we had something figured out, represent a past we'd rather not visit?  I'd guess it is both.  There is both a wistfulness for that consuming drama and a comfort in knowing that we might not have to face it again.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A bar is not a home

A man walks into a bar.....

Rewind:  a man drops his wife and daughter at a bar to get a table for lunch while he parks the car.

Rewind:  a man drops his wife and daughter at a bar to get a table for lunch while he parks the car.  As he walks around the side of the building to the front door, he sees peripherally on his right two men walking to cross the street toward him.  He hurries a little to get inside before they get too close. He can tell from the way that they are dressed that they don't have much and he doesn't feel like getting hustled.  He just wants to eat with his family.  But too late.

"Excuse me, sir," one of them calls.  "I don't mean no disrespect, but we are homeless and we want to get something to eat.  Could you please help us out?"

The man feels around in his back pocket and comes up with about 80 cents in change.  "This is all I have," he says, which is surprisingly true.

"No," says one of the two men.  "We want something to eat.  In there. Like a three cheese pizza or something.  Can you help us out?"

We are at the door and I hold the door for them and we go in, toward the bar.  I pass my family and stop to tell them that I'm going to get these guys something to eat.  My wife nods and hands me a menu.  I walk to the bar where they are seated, and when the bartender comes over, I say, "These guys want a three-cheese pizza."

"Not me," says one.  "I want a hamburger."
"I want a cheeseburger," says the other.  "And a order of fries."
"Me, too," says the other, as the bartender writes it down.  American cheese.  Both well done.
With a slight sarcasm only I can hear, I say, "How about something to drink with that?"
"To go."

I pay the tab and hang out with them for awhile.  One of them is named Harvey.  The other guy does not tell me his name; in a low voice, he pulls out an invoice for a hotel they have been kicked out of.  He clearly wants me to pay it, but I can't quote hear the details and my generosity does not extend that far.  I shake their hands and go to my table to order lunch, but I am never out, waiting until they get their food, because I have brought them in here.

Before lunch, we had been at a gallery where my wife is buying gifts for a party,  the gallery sells only the artwork of the homeless.  The owners host homeless people for classes, giving them cameras or canvases to produce work, much of it quite good.  I don't know what the arrangement is between artists and gallery, but most f the works are quite nexpensive.

The homeless are all around us.  They wait at exit ramps and gas stations and near restaurants where there is a chance they might get a meal.  They are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer and they seek places that will give them some comfort.  Every interaction, every transaction is fraught with peril when you are homeless.  The man entering the restaurant wants to get inside before you can get to him.  The people waiting at the light turn away.  If you get an inch, you have to try to take a mile for your own survival.  It is no life to have, but the only one you have and few that you encounter know how you got there, or want to know.  Because they have homes and nothing has happened to take those from them.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Okay, Wal-Mart, Ya Got Me

I've spent a fair amount of the past 15 or so years railing against the greedy, employee-unfriendly multinational giant known as Wal-Mart,  Also known as "keeping China in business."  In many ways, Wal-Mart represents everything wrong with America, corporate or otherwise.  I don't think that has changed.

But something has changed, and that something is the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market.  Not a full Wal-Mart, the market is basically a grocery with just a little bit more.  The fact that I am endorsing them probably says more about my intrinsic circumstances than the store itself.

I live in a "grocery wasteland."  For at least 5 miles in every direction, there is either no grocery store or the kind of least-common-denominator grocery store that I don't want to shop.  While that sounds elitist and pompous, I would argue that if you live in a area with significant lower income neighbors, you are doomed to subpar groceries.  And, more importantly, so are they.  On a whim, I can put in the road miles to get to an acceptable grocery.  My neighbor's don't have that luxury.  Sometimes they are even relegated to buying groceries at a Walgreen's.

In a wasteland, if there is even a grocery, and there won't be enough for anyone's convenience, it will be a compromised store with lesser cuts of meat, the worst produce, many more store brands than national brands, and NO self-checkout lines.  In my case, we once had a Red Food, but that became a Bi-Lo, and now it is a Food City.  The latest incarnation, at least, is the weakest in a downward spiral.  One need only shop in any other local city, or even town, to discover the dismal circumstances of a Chattanooga grocery shopper, outside of a few pricey specialty markets.  Kroger couldn't make it here; even Food Lion couldn't make it.

Still, the one Neighborhood Market I have been in was a clean, well-run store, easy to navigate, with name brands and good buys.  It was, even for a Wal-Mart, a much better offering than whatever else we have here.

Plus, it is only 1 1/2 miles from my house.

Plus, it is located in an area that hasn't had a grocery store anywhere near in at least 15 years.

So my praise of Wal-Mart, the greedy, family-owned (mostly) and run empire, is because they have provided a more than decent option for the poor and disenfranchised, which is also convenient for me.  When we think of "disenfranchised," we might forget that even the simple act of purchasing good food can be a challenge for the underclasses who have to find some kind of transportation that costs just to get the staples we take for granted.  There are more ways to be shut out of basic decency than exist in our philosophy, Horatio.

The irony that a grocery for the poor will provide the best ingredients for a Mexican gourmet like me is not lost.  Legal or illegal immgrants are going to shop at Wal-Mart both because of their prices and because they stock the foods that an ethnic shopper needs.  Yeah, that's a bonus for me, too.

But, mostly, I am simply celebrating the fact that the multiple communities where I live have a simple need fulfilled, one that Maslow would claim is essential.  To be able to accomplish that with a little bit of dignity is something that, I think, all of us around here feel.  For we all want little more sometimes than to walk into a store that is safe, clean, and well-stocked.  In the land of plenty, all of us would accept that common denominator, I believe. Well done, Wal-Mart.  You are welcome here in ways that you aren't and shouldn't be welcome elsewhere.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Best of Bowie

The loss of David Bowie to cancer conjures up so many memories:  my brother, who burns out on musicians and hands me all of their albums, going alone to see Bowie's Diamond Dogs tour in 1974 because no one wanted to go, friends and I at a Bowie show in Philly a mere two years later for the Station To Station tour, a blinding white light mega-tour, and in between his foray into the "Philly soul sound" with Young Americans.  Within another two years, he would declare "I am the New Age" with Low, and already be into his Berlin period with Heroes.

The man was hard to keep up with.  The man was hard to get into.  When I first heard the music, probably in 1973, Ziggy Stardust was the personna of choice and Bowie was not cool.  You might think so.  You might think he was a megastar by then but not in straight-ahead hard rock cities like Pittsburgh.  Androgyny, bisexuality, the Quaalude feel of The Man Who Sold The World--these were all acquired tastes, and like our reaction to so many musical pioneers, we made fun of Bowie long before we endorsed him.

All of that is history.  Now he is a musical legend, and his songs have been played everywhere, and no one bats an eye at his many styles and stylings.

Still, as a minor aficionado and an idiosyncratic listener, I had my own Bowie affair, and it doesn't always jive with the bests or the most played.  So, tonight, to honor him, I offer my own eclectic "best of Bowie" in starts and stops, bits and pieces:


BEST GUITARIST THAT EVER FIT BOWIE'S SOUND:  Mick Ronson.  Try "Moonage Daydream."

FAVORITE 21ST CENTURY BOWIE:  Heathen, from 2002, which captures a post-9/11 malaise.

FUNNIEST COUPLET/RHYME:  "Don't look on the carpet/ I threw something awful on it" from "Breaking Glass."

BEST LATE-70s LYRIC:  "It's not the side effects of the cocaine/ I'm thinking that it must be love" from "Station To Station."

BEST 1-2-3 STRING OF SINGLES FROM ONE CD:  "Modern Love, " "Let's Dance," " China Girl."


MOST UNUSUAL, BUT ENJOYABLE BOWIE ALBUM:  Low--one side of slight, bouncy, catchy pop songs, one side atmospheric, Eno-inflected synth instrumentals with wordless vocals.



Tuesday, January 5, 2016

If You Hate a Book, Does That Make it Good?

Is it possible to like a novel yet like none of the characters?

Is it possible to admire the endurance of a marriage between two unlikeable people?

How do you handle when a book tells you over and over that one particular character is awesome, great, amazing, yet you’re not even sure the author believes it or wants the reader to? (Call it the “doth protest too much” factor.)

When I heard Richard Russo, my favorite modern author, singing the highest praises for Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, on NPR a month or so ago, my reading that book was never in question. I would read it because the man who has written so many books I love told me to.

Fates and Furies might be the first book in 20 years I disliked yet completed.

First, a few non-spoilery details that might explain things. The novel follows a married couple, from their childhoods until what could (maybe possibly) be the end of their marriage, and the book is split into two halves, the first focused on him, the second on her.

The man is Lancelot. As in, he f*#ks everything he ever wants to growing up. The way it reads, not even Dracula himself had the kind of seductive erotic hypnotic power over all of humankind as Lancelot. And apparently none of the hundreds with whom he ever slept walked away with anything less than a glimmering opinion of the man and his character. Which, to my knowledge, has happened exactly never in the real world.

(Is this some kind of jealousy on my part? It’s not a dismissable question, but it’s definitely beside the point. I’ve had plenty of massively sexually active male friends in life, and I’ve never been as annoyed with them as I was with this guy.)

But because it’s not fair to give him just one burdensome symbolic moniker, Groff also shortens it to “Lotto.” Because he’s the focal point of the “Fates” half of the book. Get it? GET IT??? LIKE, HE WON THE LOTTO! To push two goofy slap-you-in-the-face names on a single character... now that's chutzpah.

The woman is Mathilde. But her name is not so simple either, and the second half of the book explores quite deftly why she is the focus of the “Furies” half of the book.

I didn’t like Lotto.
I didn’t like the “Fates” half of this book.
I didn’t like him, or any (save maybe one) of his family and friends.
I didn't like his success, or his ego, or his needs and weaknesses.
I didn’t like how we had to be slapped so hard with the fact that, apparently, I as the reader was the only person ever in Lotto’s presence who found him utterly, completely unlikeable. As if something must be wrong with me for not seeing his awesomeness.

I didn’t particularly like Mathilde, either.
But I liked the “Furies” half of the book.
I liked that her flaws made her who she was, while Lotto’s seemed to somehow be constantly ignored or overlooked (or unseen?) by everyone around him. He thrived despite himself. She survived because of herself.

Without question, Groff is a superb writer. I’ve read some complaints of “purple prose,” and at times the structure of the words can indeed distract from the structure of the stories and character, but I don’t know many truly brilliant writers who don’t occasionally fall into this trap (John Irving immediately comes to mind).

Either because I’m a sexist, or a wannabe feminist, or maybe both, I simply couldn’t give up on the book until I had a chance to see things from Mathilde’s perspective. It’s the one anticipation that made the first half -- which really is quite insufferable -- worth plowing through. I survived the first half because I wanted it to be revealed that Mathilde secretly detested Lotto as much as I did.

I didn't exactly get my wish, but I'm glad I stuck it out. In Mathilde we get someone whose entire life seems to be a volcano at the bottom of the ocean, her pleasant and inscrutable demeanor the buoy atop the water thousands of feet up.

Some critics speak of "feminist rage" or "feminine rage." In the words of Foghorn Leghorn, it’s about as subtle as a hand grenade in a barrel of oatmeal. But her character is so much more complicated and intriguing than that... if not quite likeable.

I didn’t like the characters, but I want to talk about the book.
I didn’t love the book, but I won’t soon forget it.

Does that make it good?