Just So I Understand

I just want to make sure I have this straight. The unfunded liabilities in the pension funds in various states, including Wisconsin, increased over the past few years due to an economic crisis brought about by greedy speculators on Wall Street, which caused the stock market to collapse, lowering the value of those funds due to their investments in corporate stocks. In order to remedy this, states are exploring options, including being allowed to declare bankruptcy, in order to reduce these obligations.

Is It Just Me or Is It Hot In Here?

Among the unpleasant things being done by the majority in the House, the systematic effort to portray climate change as a debate or even a hoax has to be the most disturbing. It makes me wonder: In what world is rhetoric more powerful than science?

Full disclose: I am not a climate change expert. Unlike the climate cranks, I don’t pretend to be an expert. My evidence for climate change, and our contribution to it, is based on the near unanimous consensus of the scientific community. When I go to the dentist and she says that I have a cavity, I believe her. Why? Because she’s an expert and identifying cavities is part of her expertise. No doubt if the Tea Partisans didn’t believe in cavities then the majority in the House would be making noise about a global conspiracy among dentists.

I know that conspiracies are fun to think about. I’ve devoted hours to reading about the Kennedy assassination. (I believe in the Lone Gunman Theory.) I’ve enjoyed movies featuring shadowy cabals that secretly control everything. The problem is that there is precious little evidence of massive conspiracies, at least of those powerful enough to have a significant impact on our lives. Still, we love our conspiracy theories and the Republicans are more than happy to serve one up on climate change.

The question becomes who stands to benefit most from talking about climate change? On one side you have scientists who are hamstrung by having to use evidence to support their findings. The climate cranks would like us to believe that all these scientists are taking part in perpetuating a massive hoax on a gullible world. But for what end? Money and power are the usual reasons that people try and cook up a conspiracy. These scientists have no political power and surely it would be more lucrative to side with the people with the deepest pockets in this conversation. (Hint: The giant corporations who generate the most pollution.) Still, the scientists put their faith in the scientific theory.

Now power and money would seem to be exactly what the climate cranks are getting out of this. The elections in November granted power to a bunch of new climate cranks, many who benefited from campaign donations from other parties who also benefit from denying our role in climate change. Which seems more likely? Are a bunch of scientists making this all up in order to gain, I’m not sure what? Or are a bunch of people who directly benefit from being allowed to continue to pollute, funneling money into the pockets of people who have the power to make the laws of the United States?

To be fair, some climate scientists may be guilty of hyping the immediacy of the dangers of global warming. (Of course, they may not be.) To invalidate the science on this basis is as silly as invalidating a diagnosis from a doctor who gave you six months to live when you actually survive nine months. That the planet is warming is the consensus of the scientific community. If some scientists think the danger is more immediate than others it only means that, unlike the politicians who can be certain about things without evidence, the scientists understand theories are only really proven when something happens.

Is This Part of the Performance?

Last weekend we went to MoMA PS1 to see “Laurel Nakadate: Only the Lonely”. Ms. Nakadate is a performance artist who works in photographs, videos and feature-length films.

I’m never sure when I see the work of a performance artist where the performance ends and the viewing of the work begins. At “Only the Lonely” I couldn’t shake that I was part of an ongoing performance, like I would show up in some future Nakadate performance. The presence of Ms. Nakadate only added to the feeling.

The themes of Ms. Nakadate’s work seem to be voyeurism and loneliness. In one work, Ms. Nakadate, behind a camera, walks into the bedrooms of three women and suggests that they strip to the their underwear. Even though Ms. Nakadate’s voice can be clearly heard, the suggestions combined with the repeated reassurances that the girls are pretty builds up to an uncomfortable feeling that you are watching something that you shouldn’t.

Most of the walls in the exhibition are covered with photos of Ms. Nakadate crying, part of a series in which Ms. Nakadate took pictures of herself crying everyday for a year. While the photos made me wonder how someone could cry that much, my wife made a good point: “There’s always something to cry about.” Indeed, there is.

Not everything in the exhibition is as affecting as the videos of the three women or the crying photos. In “Love Hotel”, Ms. Nakadate is filmed in various Japanese hotels, which are used for discrete assignations, simulating the sexual acts she would be performing if only her lover were there. The soundtrack of the film is “Angel of the Morning” and as great as that song is it is not enough to make the video work. Then again, the audience not really knowing what the point often seems to be part of performance art.

On the whole, I recommend “Laurel Nakadate: Only the Lonely.” Her videos of dancing with middle-aged men to “Oops, I Did it Again” and of celebrating “her birthday” with three middle-aged men are interesting and worth seeing. Plus, MoMA PS1 is suggested donation so you can pay what you want.

The Words Had All Been Spoken

The thing that every writer strives for is to depict something in such a way that the reader feels exactly what the writer meant for the reader to feel. If the writer is lucky then there is something universal in what he or she has written and the reader not only feels or understands what was written but recognizes that same thing in his or her own life.

One of the things that is important to me when listening to music is the feeling that I understand what the singer is singing about. One of the reasons that I became a Springsteen fan in the mid-Eighties was that I could identify with his songs. It seems strange now that I, as a fifteen year old, could find common ground with a person twenty years my senior, but it spoke to me. As you can see from the blog’s title, it still speaks to me. As I fifteen year old I understood wanting to change my clothes, my hair, my face. As an eighteen year old I understood the feeling of being two different people, of one part of me doing things that I don’t understand. The connections have continued over the years and it’s what draws me back again and again.

Now, I admit that’s its possible that Springsteen doesn’t really have any insight. Maybe I changed and now view my life through the ideas in Springsteen’s music. That could be valid. I do believe that language can determine how we think about things. For example, does desire really behave like fire, or do we just think it does because the two words rhyme? Flames of desire, consumed by desire, my heart is on fire. If you really think about the feeling of desire, is it a burning feeling? (A burning thing?) Or is it a cool ache that won’t go away? I’m not sure.

At any rate, it may not make a difference if we change or if some things really are universal. Even when we talk about universal we really don’t mean universal, we really mean something that a critical mass of people identify with. Even if that critical mass seems large, it is still a minority of us who connect to it.

At any rate, the reason this is on my mind today is because of “Late for the Sky”. Sometimes songs pop into your head and you’re not sure why. In this case, the most recent episode of “Men of a Certain Age” pushed Jackson Browne to the forefront of my mind. That episode featured “These Days” and it made me realize that I hadn’t listened to Browne in some time. I listened to his greatest hits and again was struck by “Late for the Sky”.

I’m not great at deciphering what songs are about but “Late for the Sky” pretty clearly appears to be about the end of a relationship. Browne couldn’t have been more than twenty-six when he wrote that song but everything in it is really on point. “You never knew what I loved in you/I don’t know what you loved in me/Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be.” It’s hard to believe that at twenty-six, Browne could have seen so clearly what it is that can drive people apart. If you’ve ever been in a relationship that crumbled then you will recognize plenty in Browne’s masterpiece.

The connection I have with “Late for the Sky” and with countless other songs is part of the explanation of why I feel the need to write this blog. Maybe there will be something in here that someone will read and it’ll explain something in their life that they couldn’t quite understand or articulate. I think its a worthy goal, maybe the most worthy goal of any person who practices art.

I Believe Even If I Don’t Understand, Sort of

There’s no shortage of wisdom in “Bull Durham”, not just about baseball but also about song lyrics and the way to wear a garter. Crash Davis also talked about one of the cornerstones of sports, superstitions. At one point, Mr. Davis informs Annie Savoy that if a baseball player believes that he’s playing well because of something he’s not doing then that is why he is playing well. Everyone knows not to mess with a streak.

When I was growing up I used to love to hear stories of the superstitions of various players. I’m sure I had my own when I played sports growing up although I can’t think of any of them now. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve given up superstition when it comes to sports. I’m am always on the lookout for the next lucky hat or lucky shirt or lucky place to stand to watch John Terry miss his penalty kick. (Up against the pantry doors.) I am vigilant about the jinx and the reverse jinx. Rationally I know that nothing I do will have any effect on the outcome of a sporting event that I am watching but I won’t tempt fate. An unscientific poll of my sports-watching friends indicates that they feel the same. (Sample poll question: What did you do differently to cause United to lose in Rome? Jerk.)

So why does sports lend itself to these odd behaviors? I don’t have the same beliefs in other parts of my life. I enjoy schadenfreude, but I won’t bet against my team. I’m not sure how much I believe in God, but I am pretty sure that if he exists then he knows when I lose faith in my team, way down deep inside, and I think it may disappoint him. I won’t go so far as to pray for an desired outcome but I won’t discount divine intervention. (For example, I am convinced that God thinks John Terry is knob.)

So why do we believe these things? Athletes can be excused. After all, they are undereducated, overpraised boy-men who are clueless off the field of play. In order to impose order on chaos, they need their rituals. But I don’t need them. I know there’s no power in the universe that can affect the outcomes of sporting events. Still…

You Can Go Home Again, But Why Would You Want To?

I have now lived most of my life in places other than where I grew up. As the years go by, I feel less and less of a connection to my hometown. Downtown only has a few of the same businesses as from when I was a regular patron. Even the movie theater has a different owner, and seven more screens. There is a new mall outside of town and the old mall is gone. My high school is now the middle school and my grade school is now used for something else. Even my parents have relocated to a different neighborhood. Still, its not really all these things that make it feel so strange in my erstwhile hometown. The strangeness comes from how different I feel from the people that are still there.

I have no idea if this is normal. From a very young age I was aware of the fact that I wasn’t like most other people in my town, especially my family. I was also aware, early on, that I didn’t want to be like these people. Of course I wanted to be accepted by my family and the people I interacted with, but I wanted them to accept me on my terms. I believed that there was something better that could be found somewhere else. I couldn’t express what it was but I was certain that it existed.

My biggest fear growing up is that I would never leave my hometown. I was worried that I’d end up in a job that I hated, married to a woman that I had to settle for, raising children that I felt obligated to have. Now I didn’t escape the job issue but I did get out of my hometown and did marry the woman of my dreams and we did not have any children. The life I live now may have been unusual if I’d stayed but in New York you can be anything.

So I became someone that my parents didn’t understand. I became the type of person that my parents never liked. If I wasn’t their son I’m sure they wouldn’t like me. Even as their son, some days its a close thing between like and dislike. My going back home is a reminder of why I was so anxious to get away. My family is a reminder of what I never wanted to be. I’m sure my parents know how I feel and there is an uneasy detente between us, neither side wanting to say or do the wrong thing.

I go home less and less as the years pass and I’m not sure if things will ever change. Maybe I need to accept that I will never be the child that my parents want. Maybe I need to not have a chip on my shoulder about it. I decided long ago that I would no longer make decisions based on what they wanted or thought was best. But if you can’t be yourself when you go home then why bother?

Change the Conversation

Don Draper, ad man, once said “If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation. The liberals in the US Congress have spent two years upset with what the conservatives have been saying but have not been able to change the conversation. In the wake of the results last November which changed the Democrats from the majority to the minority in the House, there are signs that they may be trying to change the conversation. In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama started to try and change the conversation. The biggest problem, however, is the arrogance of the liberals which may make changing the conversation impossible.

We liberals are convinced that if we could just have a calm, honest discussion about issues then people would be convinced of our viewpoint. We think of ourselves as being about facts and that the other side is about emotion. After the violence in Arizona, one of many incidents of gun violence in Arizona in January but the only one which featured a member of Congress, there was talk about increasing civility in political discourse. This appeals to the Democrats because they are tired of losing the debate, which they feel has been argued with emotions and not facts. If only they could calmly explain to the American people how their ideas are the correct ones then public opinion would change.

The problem is that for some reason people don’t like to be condescended to. In my own experience, I’ve tried to calmly explain to my conservative parents exactly what is right about my ideas and wrong about their’s and the result is always annoyance and anger, on both sides. My parents have accused me of condescension for over twenty years and I’ve not been able to sway them on any issues. Maybe if I could wrap myself in the flag and accuse them of being un-American in their beliefs then there would be some movement.

I think this may be the way for the Democrats to go also. I know that they are loathe to stoop to the tactics of their opponents, convinced as they are in their own superiority. The problem is that this attitude is a turn-off for people outside of the urban areas of the United States. It’s all well and good to live in New York secure in our superiority and certain that we know what’s good for all those rubes in the red states. The problem is that all these rubes can vote and the evidence indicates that they don’t like being called rubes. My parents are solidly working class and I’m pretty certain that they have never voted for a Democratic candidate for President. Aligning themselves with the liberal elite is unthinkable.

So the liberals should change the conversation. We may believe that we really know what’s better for everyone but even if all of our ideas are better, no wants to hear us talk about them. We are all so busy congratulating ourselves on how clever we are that we haven’t noticed that there are a lot of people that are sick of us. Matt Taibbi warned that by labeling the Tea Party supporters as lunatics and crazy people that the Democrats were underestimating the power of their ideas. The proof was delivered in the ballots. Sometimes its not enough just to be right. The liberals should change the conversation now if we want to have the opportunity to prove that we’re right.

Read it or Watch it First?

Fantasy geeks like myself can’t wait until April 17. That is the date that the new HBO series “A Game of Thrones” debuts. The series is based on the first book of the scheduled seven book A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin. (Four of the books have been published so far.) Martin’s series was no doubt partly inspired by Tolkien’s but there is also plenty of what Tolkien left out, namely characters who are neither wholly good nor wholly evil. And sex, plenty of sex.

As most people have not read the book that the first season of the series is based upon, the natural question is should I read the book first or should I watch the series without having read it?

I’m not sure there is any right answer. A book is always going to be more detailed than a movie or a TV series. It’s the stock answer for those of us who like to read books first to say “There was so much more in the book.” “You should read the book, it’s so much better.” Saying that polishes my elitist credentials, but its really beside the point, isn’t it? A great movie or TV series should be able to stand on its own and not rely on having foreknowledge from having read the book.

What it comes down to is what you really want out of a book or movie or TV series. If you haven’t yet read A Game of Thrones then you have to decide which you want to enjoy more, the book or the TV series. As much as I enjoyed the book (well before the TV series was picked up by HBO), there is something to be said about going into the series cold and experiencing it without preconceptions. From what I’ve read and seen, the adaptation appears to be faithful to the book. If you are like me and don’t have a extra time to bang out the first book before the series starts then I recommend not worrying about it. Relax and wait for April. After all, there are three more books out there for you to fill the time between the end of the first season and the (hopefully) second season.

Just know that the books are so much better.

I Need a Drummer (But Not a Bass Player) to Make Me Happy

So I just finished reading Life, Keith Richards’ autobiography. Along the way I learned some interesting stuff about how Keith gets that sound out of his guitar, how the Glimmer Twins wrote songs and I learned way more about heroin addiction than I ever wanted to. But the most surprising thing I learned is that Keith apparently didn’t think much of Bill Wyman, the Stones’ original bass player.

As a young music fan, I naturally worshiped the lead singers and lead guitarists. To make a sports analogy, these guys are the goal-scorers or the guys that hit home runs or the guys that take off from the foul line and dunk it. When I got older and fulfilled my lifelong dream of learning how to play guitar, I had the good fortune of being taught guitar by a bass player. My teacher opened up a new idea to me that the rhythm section of a band, that is the bass player and the drummer, are the bedrock on which the band’s sound is built. Someone has to keep time, someone has to make sure that there is a rational place to come back to after going off on some attention-getting tangent. My teacher told me about the great James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, who of course I’d listened to for hours but didn’t realize it. I learned about Carol Kaye. I learned about Paul McCartney as a bassist. I can’t really hear (or feel) what the rhythm section of a band is doing, but it opened my mind to the possibility.

So even before I started reading Life, I was aware of a quote from somewhere that stated that most bands follow the rhythm section while the Stones follow Keith. With all this in mind, I expected Keith to confirm this. Instead, Keith repeatedly mentioned the genius of Charlie Watts and how they worked together musically. For Keith, the musical foundation of the Stones is he and Charlie. I don’t remember any comments about Bill Wyman as a player. I think Keith had nicer things to say about Bill’s replacement, Darryl Jones.

The legend is that Bill Wyman was wanted as a member of the band initially because he had an amp. Maybe to Keith, that’s all he was.

And the Award Goes to Someone, Anyone

Around the time the old year turns into the new, people get busy giving awards and making up top ten lists of various things. Critics list top ten books, top ten TV shows, top ten movies of the year. Magazines and newspapers list the top ten stories. Around this time of year, the best soccer player in the world is crowned and the baseball writers make their decisions about who gets in the Hall of Fame. Hours are spent writing and reading and debating these awards and nominations which all have one thing in common: Identifying the best is beside the point. The reading and writing and debating is the point.

Sports award are never identifying the best players. If that was the case then you would expect to see players win the awards for defensive as well offensive excellence. This is rarely the case. The FIFA World Player of the Year and the Balloon d’Or awards (now combined into one award) have been awarded primarily to strikers and offensive midfielders. While no one can argue that Lionel Messi, the winner of the FIFA Balloon d’Or is undeserving, the key player on Barcelona, his club team, is Xavi, a midfielder who’s main talent is passing the ball to his teammates. Xavi was as important to Barcelona as was Messi, plus Xavi’s national team, Spain, won the World Cup. But Xavi doesn’t score goals so the casual fan doesn’t appreciate Xavi. Casual fans are more common than hardcore fans so the awards have to go to someone that the casual fan can appreciate. In soccer, this means players who dribble through people and score goals.

In American sports, the awards are the same. NFL MVPs go disproportionately to quaterbacks and running backs. NBA MVPs are often the top scorers and no one cares if the MLB MVPs can play defense or not. Again, giving the award to the best player is not the goal. The goal is always to generate interest which will generate revenue. The sports leagues want people to tune in on TV, to show up at the arenas and to buy merchandise, all so that the next TV contract will be larger, the advertising sold during game broadcasts will be more expensive and, ultimately, the value of the franchises will be greater.

The goal of the organizations that give awards to movies and television shows is also to generate dollars. How could anyone be expected to determine who gave a better performance? Is it the performance that involved mastering another activity like singing or dancing? Is it the performance that required the most difficult accent? Is it the performance that was the most uncannily similar to the real person that it was based upon? And how do you compare someone who had to look credible as a dancer with someone who had to seem credible as a well-known public figure? Plus, the voters take into account extraneous factors such as whether or not an actor was unfairly overlooked previously, is the actor nice or nasty in interactions, does the actor come from an award-winning family. Also, if the actor is from a movie that is being given a lot of awards, undeserving nominees in other categories may benefit. In 2004, no one reasonably believed that “Into the West” from “The Return of the King” was the best song. Yet the Academy was intent on giving every possible award to the last of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, so the song won. Again, none of this is to identify the best.

It’s fun to read these lists and to be reminded of things that you may have seen during the year but there’s no reason to get emotional about any of it. No amount of awards can make you enjoy a bad movie and no athlete can be fully appreciated only by looking at their silverware.

As I mentioned, at this time of year people love to post their ten best lists. Some years there are more than ten and some years there are less than ten deserving recognition, but people list ten. Sometimes, people list 100, which of course is 10 times 10. The decimal numeral system (base 10) is the most widely used numerical base in the world. Do you want to know why? Look at your hands.