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Saturday, November 29, 2003

America Steps Back into the Pre-Industrial Era

I happen to be rereading Kevin Phillips’ essential text book on the decline of our nation as a bastion of equality and prosperity, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, at the same time I have tried to bring myself up to speed on the California grocery workers’ strike. The United Food and Commercial Workers union has said that the grocery retailers are attempting to knock their workers out of the middle class. The supermarkets have hired scab labor in their effort to bring the union to its knees. This sort of labor trouble made me look at a calendar to make sure it was 2003 and not 1903.

The California workers aren’t asking for more money, they are only demanding that they be allowed to keep the benefits they have already fought for and earned. One of the biggest issues of contention is the supermarkets’ insistence that the workers pay a greater share of their health insurance costs. The “liberal media” coverage of the strike has been all but nonexistent and the paltry reporting has generally leaned in favor of the corporate leviathans. Fox News ran a corporate-biased AP wire story on their website posted on October 12, 2003 that lead with this gem, “Three major supermarket chains said Sunday they plan to hire temporary workers (i.e. scabs, this parenthetical aside is mine, of course) to keep hundreds of stores open as more than 70,000 grocery clerks in southern California began a strike.” AP is obviously more interested in the stores remaining open than the plight of the workers. On the same screen Fox had an advertisement for a grocery store chain.

Ever since I can remember, grocery stores clerks have had a fairly strong union that allowed them decent pay and benefits. I have no doubt that you could hire people to do their jobs for less pay, I suppose there are some people who wouldn’t mind reverting back to the days of slavery. I don’t see much of a difference between slavery and paying people next to nothing and denying them essentials like health care. That isn’t the kind of society I want to live in and I’m willing to make sacrifices so every working American earns a decent wage and has access to life’s essentials like education, national security, a clean environment, and health care.

Wealth and Democracy documents how over the past 25 years the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Every table, every graph, every historical comparison in this book should fill every decent American with outrage. For corporate America to tell workers that they can’t pay them a decent wage is an outrage. Corporate taxes have dwindled from 26.5% of total receipts in 1950 to 10.2 in 2000 while the share paid by payroll taxes has risen from 6.9% to 31.1% over the same period.

What kind of a country will this be when we have split ourselves into two factions: minimum wage peons and a few hyper-rich plutocrats? I think I have spent enough time in Latin America to realize that we are moving to their levels of inequality.

I don’t know about you but I don’t need to save 15 cents on a package of bologna if it means the person stocking the shelves can’t afford to go to a doctor or pay the rent.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

A Broken Record

I have to start out with a parenthetical clarification. A broken record is a quaint little phrase that carries no meaning for a lot of young people who have never had a record to break. When they think of a broken record it is of the Guinness Book type. I wonder how long ‘a broken record’ will remain in our lexicon as meaning something happening over and over again? When a CD breaks it just makes that super-annoying digital glitchy sound.

Like most people, I find great comfort and refuge in music. I agree with Glenn Gould that music is a completely solitary experience, a one on one thing. I enjoy seeing live performances but I would much rather listen to music alone. This probably has a lot to do with the way that I listen to music.

My own taste in listening would drive anyone else completely insane. Anyone looking at my music collection would think that I am someone who is very adventurous; someone who appreciates all types of music; someone whose musical tastes spans the entire spectrum from country to bebop jazz. The truth is that my music collection is camouflage for the fact that I have only one recording.

Musically speaking I feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining in which he was a writer and had written a single sentence, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” over and over on hundreds of pages. He was full blown crazy in the movie. My condition makes Jack’s compulsive creepiness in The Shining look like a charming little tic.

First let me say that for someone who owns a shit load of music I probably listen to music at home less than anyone I know. I don’t know why but since I started playing piano six years ago I don’t have the same need to listen to music that I once had. Generally, I only listen to music in my home when I a take a shower and get dressed. What I do listen to is the same piece of music over and over and over and over again and then I hit repeat.

They say that the first step in the cure is admitting that you have a problem. I have a problem. My monogamous relationship with this bit of music is like that of male and female Canadian geese that mate for life. This song is always fresh to me. My heart always quickens on the contrapuntal rising bridge that occurs twice in this 3 minute masterpiece. I have marked this very spot on my computer and I will click on to this group of three or four measures.

I have the sheet music for this piece but it is sadly beyond my abilities. I think that I will never possess the necessary skill to add this beautiful song to my repertoire but I thought that about other masterpieces that I now take great pleasure in butchering on my piano. Perhaps only by learning to play this bit of music will I be free of it; free to get compulsive about another song.

I have been trying to spend enough time sitting down at the piano to recapture my repertoire that has escaped from the corral of my abilities. I think that I have lassoed Domenico Scarlatti’s sonata in A Major L. 483, a wonderful little piece that I have heard transcribed for guitar. After all of the strays have been herded up I need to start learning some new pieces. Half of the problem I have with learning piano is finding pieces that I can so thoroughly obsess upon that I don’t mind hearing them over a thousand times. Any suggestions?

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Why I Live Where I Live

My apartment is really too small. My once-wonderful view of the Puget Sound has been blocked by a new apartment building (That’s progress!). Laundry day means Sherpa’ing my basket deep into the bowels of my building. The kitchen is really too small. I have a lot of reasons to get a new place. Four things keep me from moving: Laziness (Wanna help move a piano? That’s what I thought.) and location, location, location.

Location is the single biggest luxury I afford myself; it is my most cherished possession. There are a few downtown areas in Seattle that might be an improvement over where I live now. They would only be a few blocks away so I spare myself the hassle of moving. My next move will be to another city—Paris or Madrid where I can be just another eccentric kook and be completely ignored.

On a day like today when it is raining buckets I am deeply grateful that I don’t have far to go to do the things that I do in the course of a day. I only have to cross three or four flooded streets to reach the awning at my gym. The grocery store is two blocks from the gym—not even enough of a walk to get really wet by Seattle standards.

Coffee, food, theater, drinks, and movies (not necessarily in that order) are all right around the corner. A lot of this has to do with the fact that a forward-thinking Seattle mayor decided a decade ago that people should live in the downtown area and established zoning laws to achieve this goal. I don’t understand this idea that government is bad. We are the government, free to change whatever it is about our society that doesn’t please us. Left to the free market Seattle’s downtown would look like...I don’t know, like a lot of U.S. cities where nobody actually lives downtown.

These days just the thought of getting in my car practically makes me break out in hives. The other night I was going to a play on Capital Hill (a mile or two from where I live). Before the play I was meeting some friends for dinner in another downtown neighborhood. As I was walking out to my car I was stressing out over parking at both locations and whether or not I wanted to have more than the two drink maximum I allow myself when I drive. I nipped that little conniption fit in the bud by hailing a cab. I like having that option available.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

¡Óyela, Gózala!


The above title—in Spanish--comes from an old Celia Cruz song that I haven’t listened to in years. I have a lot of Latin music lying around and I have been rediscovering it after letting this field in my music collection lie fallow for quite some time. Who has time to listen to my dozens and dozens of Latin CD’s when I have to listen to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s second English Suite over and over for the past two years?

While in the process of burning my considerable Latin collection onto my laptop I have become reacquainted with some old favorites and discovered some new treasures. I thought some of you who haven’t been as influenced by Latin culture as I might want to take a peek at a sample of some of the best. Now where do I start? Instead of choosing a bunch of songs that will flow together I thought it best to sample as many different styles as possible. As in my Glenn Gould offer some time ago, I will send you a copy of this for free if you e-mail me your address. Don't worry about the postage, I'm stinking rich.

1) ROMANTICOS AL RESCATE, Luis Enrique A lot of guys who front salsa bands are just pretty boys who can sing but Luis is a talented song writer as well as a great singer. Put on this song and people will start dancing, I don’t care if you’re at a funeral. Luis also put out a pretty kick-ass pop CD (generally a genre I detest for its overproduction) entitled Genesis. Salsa has already sort of run its course of being trendy in this country, now it’s time for it to become popular like the Cuban music of the 1950’s.

2) SE VOCE ME OUVISSE, Beth Carvalho I don’t speak Portuguese so I have no idea what she is singing about and I don’t know what she looks like but Beth Carvalho needs to realize that I am her soul mate. I will buy any compilation of Brazilian music just to hear one song by this goddess--this cut is from a CD called Brazilliance that I’ve had forever and ever. I first heard samba on the radio when I was going to school in Lima, Peru and I loved it immediately. Samba is the opposite of an acquired taste: You are either a living, breathing soul and you love it, or you need to be lowered into your grave.

3) RANCHO DE CANUTILLO, Mazz The members of this TexMex band all sport lovely mullets on the CD cover…priceless. This song is the best Ranchera song I’ve ever come across. Rancheras tell stories and here’s the story to this one: Rosa Maria leaves her ranch to go shopping in town. Along the way she is held up by two scallywags whose intention goes beyond robbery ( acabar con su orgullo is about as vague as you can get to mean to violate) Rosa Maria’s boyfriend, Antonio, happens along and all hell breaks lose. Antonio caps the two would be evil-doers (There, I used GW’s dumb ass expression in a sentence) but Maria has taken a stray bullet and dies in his arms. Antonio is grief-stricken so he shoots himself. These songs often end in a bloodbath and often speak of sadness and loss; a man’s lover dies or God forbid if his horse should die. Rancheras are also noted for the high-pitched yells that you hear in Mexican music which can mean happiness, sadness, or drunkenness.

4) CON LOS ANOS QUE ME QUEDAN, Gloria Estefan Gloria’s husband, Emilio Estefan, is THE best producer of Latin music. Gloria and Emilio co wrote this beautiful song about finally being true and good to someone you have been with. With the years left she wants to show how much she loves her mate. Because Spanish isn’t my native language I think I love Gloria because she annunciates so perfectly.o

5) MEDITERRANEO, Joan Serrat Joan Serrat is Spanish, more specifically he is Catalan and sings in that language as well as Spanish. This song has a rather corny production but the subject matter begs me to include it on this list of my favorite Latin songs. Whenever I play this song I think back to when I lived there, spending countless summer days looking for another secluded cove to explore above and below the surface. A beautiful body of water, from Algiers to Istanbul, from Athens to Tel Aviv.

6) QUE GANAS DE NO VERTE MAS, India This Puerto Rican Amazon beauty sings with a passion and fire that is almost frightening. Then you listen to what she is singing and you ARE frightened. This isn’t a woman you would want to cross if you are her lover. In her song Ese Hombre she calls this dude every name in the book. The chorus goes, “You don’t have a heart.” On the cover she poses with a cigar in her mouth and she looks like she’d take a swing at you if you gave her half an excuse. I wouldn’t.

7) OJALA QUE LLUEVA CAFE, Juan Luis Guerra y 440 Let it rain coffee is probably the most popular song by this popular Dominican merengue band.

8) OVERJOYED, Marco Marco de Carvalho, Brazilian virtuoso guitarist and Seattle resident, plays this lovely solo instrumental version of the Stevie wonder classic--an arrangement that J.S. Bach would have been proud to claim as his own. I first heard this song while I was having lunch in a Seattle restaurant. I immediately stopped eating and started listening. I went to the front desk and asked who it was I had just heard. They didn’t know and they had one of those 100 CD changers that was playing on random so I had to sort through 100 empty cases. By process of elimination I found Marco’s CD called Paisajens (Landscapes). I have since had the pleasure of seeing him perform a couple times. He’s a true artist.

9) AZUCA DE CANA, Eva Ayllon A Peruvian song that celebrates the sugar cane harvest, the sun, and love. Like all Latinos, Peruvians love music and they love making music. I can’t remember how many times I would be in some crappy cantina somewhere in Peru and someone would start playing a guitar or banging on a can and the place would burst out into song like some corny Broadway musical. In Latin America no matter what you are doing or where you are, music is not very far below the surface and aching to come up for air.

10) MI SONCITO, Celia Cruz The mambo queen. I saw her perform at an outdoor festival in Miami that made Miami look more like Havana, Cuba than a city in Florida. If you don’t speak Spanish and you live in Miami you are absolutely kidding yourself—you are as likely to hear Celia Cruz on the musak in a Miami business as Britney Spears. That’s a good thing.

11) ALLEGRIA, The Gypsy Kings These guys were fairly popular a while back so I wasn’t sure if I was just beating a dead horse by raving about their music. This guitar instrumental entitled “Happiness” in whatever language these Spanish gypsies speak lives up to its name (this title isn’t quite Spanish although they do sing in Spanish). The music from this part of Spain owes as much to Arab influences as it does European traditions.

12) GUANTANAMERA, Vieja Trova Santiaguera This Cuban classic is performed as true to its roots as is possible by this group of old guys in their 70’s. If there were any justice in the world they would have been included in the Buena Vista Social Club phenomena. This is about as good as this song gets and that’s pretty good.

13) SONHU MEU, Gal Costa and Maria Bethania Portuguese is simply the best language for the human voice.

14) AMOR DE PLAYA, El Gran Combo El Gran Combo, from Puerto Rico, didn’t invent salsa music but they came pretty close to defining it over the years.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Thinking Out Loud

Several months ago I began collecting used baseball gear. My original intention was to make a trip to Cuba and give it all away to needy baseball fanatics. I have altered my plans slightly. I have decided that I will go somewhere in Mexico to unite baseball gloves, balls, bats and players. As I began looking at travel arrangements to Cuba I became a little overwhelmed with the logistics of getting there. I also realized that I have much more of a connection to Mexico. The whole project is simply about mixing my love for Latin America with my love of the American pastime.

Just where in Mexico is still up in the air. I know quite a lot of people from Vera Cruz, a place I have yet to visit. I may go to Guanajuato, a beautiful city I explored briefly on my last trip south. I have narrowed down the ‘when’ part to some time in February. I am also working on the ‘who’ part and I am encouraging everyone I know to take part in this mission. I am going to need porters as I already have enough stuff to burden three people and I haven’t even asked for outside donations yet. I have a couple of people willing to donate tons of stuff if I get enough bearers of my goodwill.

The ‘what’ part of this story has become something of a mild obsession for me these past few months. I can’t drive past a yard sale or a thrift shop without stopping to see if I can pick up a glove or two or three. At last count I had 73 baseball gloves, 28 aluminum bats, five batting helmets, and three full catcher ensembles. I kept one mitt for myself out of this treasure chest—a beautiful infielder’s mitt I got for $1.99 that probably retailed for over $100. It is so broken in that I never want to take it off my hand.

As my plans for this trip become more concrete I will let you know. I have also been working on my baseball skills as I don’t want to look like the old gringo who talks a good game but ain’t got game. Infield practice anyone?

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The X-Mass Bottom Line

Dear Retailers of America,

I am writing this to let you know that we all think you are doing a swell job of promoting the birthday of baby Jesus—an often overlooked cult figure in our society of cult figures. If it weren’t for your over-eager promotion of the birthday of Jesus and its related orgy of shopping I feel that many among us might come to think of December 25th as merely a Christian religious holiday to be observed with dignity and reverence.

Who has ever made a buck off of reverence? Have you ever tried to sell dignity at a shareholders meeting? Ha! I don’t think that the words “business” and “dignity” belong in the same fiscal quarter let alone the same paragraph or—God forbid—the same sentence. If we start getting too carried away with this whole “dignity” thing how are we going to sell all of this tasteless garbage we bought from the Chinese slave labor shops? It is all subjective anyway because isn’t what one person thinks of as “undignified,” another, more business-oriented person sees as tomorrow’s landfill fodder? Don’t people who work at landfills need jobs too? Thanks for looking out for them.

Thanks to the retailers of America, Christmas will be much bigger this year than the release of the Incredible Hulk and quite possibly on a par with those delightful Matrix movies. There is little fear of Noel wallowing in obscurity like some crappy foreign movie. Thank you for promoting X-mass for almost two months before the actual release date of December 25 with a free-for-all of catchy Christmas music, decorations, heaps of cool related merchandise, and Santa action figures for the little ones (In market research surveys Santa figures were 28% more popular than baby Jesus characters—forget about crucified adult Jesus dolls, total bummer for the kids.). I love it when November has barely raised its meek head and I am already scorched by the forest fire of marketing that aims to burn down an entire fiscal quarter and then some.

I know what you may be thinking. You may be thinking that perhaps the public would prefer that the Christmas holiday promotion be postponed until a more appropriate date. Perhaps we could wait until after Thanksgiving to let Americans reflect on that celebration of gluttony before doing the hard-sell on this, our biggest commercial holiday. Sure this might be more “tasteful” or less “vulgar” than your current marketing strategy but these accusations are usually made by people who wouldn’t know a bottom line from a hole in the ground. And speaking of a hole in the ground, I say we take critics of the Yuletide marketing blitzkrieg and throw their lifeless corpses in a big hole—freaking communists.

Never forget: The business of America is business and 40% of that business is X-mass holiday related.

God Bless

Friday, November 07, 2003

In my first ever public performance I played Johann Sebastian Bach's openning aria to the Goldberg Variations at a thrift store yesterday. I was trying out an old upright they had for sale. The piano was cool but they were asking too much. I need to practice.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Civic Duty

In order for me to renew my car registration I had to get another vehicle emissions test. The testing place is on the north end of town along Seattle’s ugliest thoroughfare. Highway #99 north of Green Lake Park is a total blight, lined with franchise businesses, car repair shops, and seedy hotels. It is about as tacky a business district as you are likely to find north of Tijuana, Mexico. Think of a four-way sewer. It is as if the planners of this city ceded this bit of real estate to anyone willing to build anything. I’m only glad that I don’t have to go out that way often.

Along with the usual licensing fees I had to pay my first installment for the new monorail (Something like $80 per $10,000 of your car’s value). Many Seattle residents are finding ways to register their cars outside of the city to avoid the tax. I guess these citizens want Seattle to be more like Highway #99 and less like the beautiful city neighborhoods where I live. Without a concerted effort towards mass transit all of this city will be paralyzed by the sprawl and congestion that afflicts the outer regions of the city. I guess the people who are avoiding the tax need the money to help make the next payment on their Hummer.

I was heading to the grocery store last night when I noticed a lot of empty parking spaces around my building—not a common sight in the early evening. My car was parked right out in front and I thought how nice it would be to actually drive to the store. I quickly dashed that notion from my head because I thought what a lazy fuck I would be if I couldn’t walk 2 blocks to the store and 2 blocks home again. I have been conditioned to walk because of the usual dearth of parking. To consider the car in my transportation model is fairly rare. It’s not like I’m some full-blown eco-hippie. I just hate driving around trying to park. I also know that I wouldn’t want to look at an eyesore like Highway #99 every time I needed to shop.

I don’t think my views are necessarily liberal or conservative. This is just about deciding what is the best way for a community to live. The people of Seattle have decided that public transportation is a better way to go than relying exclusively on private vehicles. We fucking voted on it and now a lot of car owners are deciding that they don’t want to go along with the plebiscite (my guess is that these are rich assholes with another residence outside Seattle where they can register their vehicles—poor people never seem to have the resources to cheat much on their taxes).

I’m sure that these tax cheats can justify their action (or inaction) by criticizing the monorail and saying they didn’t vote for it. They probably don’t vote at all. They have been brainwashed by the right into thinking that all government spending is bad (except military spending of course) and that the money is better off in their hands than funding a silly government project like mass transit.

I wish that we could house all of the people who voted against the monorail and who have avoided paying the tax out in the crappy suburban areas of Seattle. I wish that we could tax them every time they entered the city to enjoy the lovely downtown or to explore one of Seattle’s cool neighborhoods. They don’t deserve to take part in the civic pride most people have for this city. There are costs associated with citizenship and we all have to pay them. There are responsibilities associated with citizenship and we all have to bear them.

Monday, November 03, 2003

The Snot and Grape Juice Diet

A local area seafood restaurant, The Flying Fish, sponsored a gathering in honor of the wide variety of Washington oysters now coming into season. I received my invitation at the last minute on Saturday afternoon. I had been driving around doing various errands and hadn’t had anything to eat. We showed up at the restaurant promptly at 1. I had been up since 8 or so and had been to the gym. I was ready to eat. When they said this was going to be an oyster affair they weren’t kidding--the only food they had was oysters.

I like oysters as much as the next guy. Either that or I dislike oysters as much as the next guy. Does the next guy like oysters or is he just faking it like me? When I lived in the Chesapeake Bay area most nights of drinking began with everyone getting a dozen oysters on the half-shell. I would douse my oysters with a tablespoon of Tabasco sauce. It is hard for me to imagine anything that is too disgusting that I wouldn’t eat chased with a tablespoon of hot sauce. I think that our attraction to oysters was simply a matter of dietary machismo and had little to do with whether or not we liked the taste.

The restaurant had set up several tables with each table offering different oysters from around the Puget Sound along with local wines—Washington excels in both bivalves and wine. Each table had a crew of shuckers and the oysters they were opening for us were truly magnificent. Most of the wines were of the sauvignon blanc varietal and went well with the briny, slimy oysters.

I was so hungry I felt like I could eat the shells. I was sucking down oysters right and left, up and down, back and forth. I was like John Belushi in the Animal House cafeteria but with better clothes. It was a pretty civilized affair and I was trying to fit in. The hosts at each table explained the qualities of their particular fare and its point of origin within the myriad channels of the Sound. After receiving one such lecture I commented to our party about how this oyster, served with a squeeze of lemon, was like a very citrusy cup of snot. I know, not very funny especially when you consider that one gal in our party was fairly new to the whole raw oyster thing and was trying hard not too find the whole ritual as revolting as it really is.

Everyone else there must have been as hungry as I because the moment the hosts put out some fare that wasn’t raw (fried oysters and baked oysters with corn chutney) the crowd rushed the tables like a rugby scrum. The scene could only be described as a feeding frenzy. There were only one or two fatalities and after the carcasses were hauled out the back exit things settled down. The wine played its part to deaden hunger and the afternoon stretched on into what was to become the world’s longest appetizer course.

After our afternoon of celebrating Washington oysters we went to a Mexican joint and ordered everything on the menu except oysters.