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Sunday, October 31, 2004

What Part of Democracy Don't You Understand?

Lost ballots, stories of intimidation at the polls, stolen registration forms, and other tactics to discourage participation in our democratic process may be coming from both the right and the left but they have one name: Fascism. That has been a very over-used and misused word but when I use it to describe those who are trying to steal an election I think it is completely free of hyperbole.

Although voter intimidation has made its way into the press I think that it has been under-reported and the gravity of the crimes committed have been severely discounted. The 2000 Florida recount was mostly ignored by the media and especially so by the one person, Al Gore, who should have campaigned hardest for any impropriety to be exposed. To paraphrase the impossible-to-quote George W. Bush, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice and we are little more than a fucking banana republic.”

The television has done an especially atrocious job in reporting possible voting improprieties. CNN spends about half of its coverage citing polls relating to the presidential campaign. One quarter of their coverage is devoted to showing clips of the two candidates campaigning. The rest of their broadcast has talking heads telling you how you should think about what you just heard the candidates saying. Almost none of their broadcast involves actual news reporting or anything remotely resembling journalism. Actual reporting takes too much time and money to be conducted for a 24 hour cable news outlet. It is better to just point a camera at something in Iraq that just got blown up and have someone with nice hair tell you about what just got blown up.

Democracy from M.Fr. democratie, from M.L. democratia, from Gk. demokratia, from demos "common people," originally "district," + kratos "rule, strength." This gets to the heart of who really is to blame if things go wrong in the upcoming election. In past elections up to fifty percent of those registered to vote have chosen not to. Voter ignorance and apathy are equally disturbing characteristics in this present election cycle as so much is at stake.

The American democratic ideal has a grave test before it. Will we the people correct ourselves and take back the power of the government that we have so willingly reliquished? John Kerry must defeat Bush but even after that is accomplished our work as citizens has only begun. At the grass roots level I think we have made a great start in returning power to individuals and away from corporate interests which are at odds with those of America.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

An Argument Against Reading

Here is a simple rule. Avoid magazines with any of the following, or combinations of the following, on the cover: Celebrities, headlines about sex techniques or diets, and Oprah. This doesn’t leave much.

I caught a woman I know reading Shape magazine which is some sort of glamour/fitness rag. One of the cover headlines was about how to have "perfect" skin. That is what it is really all about in this day and age—being perfect. I’m sorry ladies, if you aren’t perfect I’m just going to throw your shit out in the street and change my phone number. Why should I settle for anything less than perfect? I’m an American! I want beer without carbohydrates; I won’t settle for less than 10 cylinders in my SUV; I only drink water from the French Alps; I deserve to be surrounded by perfect girls, and if they go wild from time to time then so be it.

The new American feminine beauty ideal of looking like someone who is battling a life-threatening illness by going to a tanning salon is on display in every fashion magazine in the nation. You can call this the “Yes, I’m starving; no, they’re not real; no, I’m not Mexican; and of course this isn’t my natural hair color” school of beauty.

The flip side of this sorry equation is the realm of men’s magazines. Maxim leads the way by espousing the “He who OD’s on coke with the most asinine electronic gadgets wins” philosophy of life. Good magazines are like sitting in a salon with brilliant people having an intelligent conversation. Maxim is like a couple of frat boys taking a pee together while they brag about some chick they banged. Maxim’s approach to male/female relations is the moral equivalent of teaching someone how to cheat at cards. To the writers at Maxim, a relationship with a woman is some sort of win or lose game, and they have what it takes for you to get ahead.

You say Self and I say Esquire; they are two words that both mean shit. Whether your magazine has Johnny Depp, or a woman baring her midriff on the cover, you’ll be better off not reading. Does my position regarding most men’s magazines mean that I am metrophobic (fear of metrosexuals)? I think I am just terrified of being stupid, and if you read these types of magazines you get dumber by the word. Not only are they almost completely free of any useful information they also wear away your ability to resist the forces of marketing. After a steady dose of glam mags you will break down and scream, “OK, I give up. Give me the God damned 340-horsepower HEMI® V8 Dodge Magnum RT and throw in the Rolex while you’re at it.” They call you a target market for a reason: Someone is aiming for you.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Walking and Biking

FURTHER REFLECTIONS ON WALKING, BIKING, AND LEAVING THE CAR PARKED

As I sit here looking out the window I watch someone try to parallel park an expensive German automobile. They seem rather uncomfortable with the endeavor and the solid engineering doesn’t seem to make it any easier for them. I am a great parallel parker; I’m a great parker, period. My middle name should be Urban Parker. I never pay to park--paying to park is for pansies. What I have even more talent for than parking, either parallel or otherwise, is walking and biking. I walked here this morning. It’s only about three blocks from my apartment so I don’t want a pat on the back but every once in a while I like to talk about what a great luxury it is to not have to drive a car day in, day out.

I have a great parking spot for my car in front of the restaurant by my apartment. My “Veteran for Kerry” bumper sticker has transformed my seldom-used Volkswagen into a campaign billboard. Putting a Kerry sticker on your car in Seattle is like bringing coals to Newcastle, but that’s the subject of another essay. My point is that I have been completely foot-powered for about three weeks solid. Rain or shine (This is Seattle so it has been mostly the former) I either ride a bike or walk.

My neighborhood is completely self-contained; everything I need is within about ten blocks. There are times when I would like to go out to another area of town to check out a new restaurant or club. On those occasions I either take a cab or change my plans and stay in my neighborhood. I can never seem to summon the energy these days to drive a car just to go to a restaurant. There are lots of good restaurants within walking distance without the worries of having too much wine.

A local politician here was criticized for saying that Seattle was like Mayberry, the archetypical hick town from The Andy Griffith Show. Some Seattleites think we are a chic, sophisticated city. I would split the difference and say we are a chic, sophisticated Mayberry. I don’t need a car much here in Mayberry unless I want to drive up to the country seat at Mount Pilot or wherever the non-The Andy Griffith Show equivalent of that is in Washington state.

In the October 18, 2004 issue of The New Yorker magazine David Owen states in his article entitled Green Manhattan: Everywhere should be more like New York that NY is the most environmentally friendly city in America. Most of this is due to the heavy population density and the fact that New Yorkers can actually walk places.

Every time I see a new apartment high-rise go up in Seattle I can’t help but think that a hillside east of here was spared the bulldozer’s wrath. The 150 or so new residents of that building can now walk to stores, restaurants, bars, dry cleaners, and to church I guess. Is there a church around here? What I am trying to say is that if you live in a dense urban area you don’t have to drive much which leaves more time for prayer.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

There Is a Word for Life Without Baseball: Winter

It isn’t winter just yet. Once again baseball has come through at the end of the season with some of the most exciting games I’ve had the pleasure to watch in my life as a fan. I would find it difficult to believe that there could possibly be another American city besides Boston that has rooted harder for the Red Sox than Seattle. The Sox have served as the surrogate Mariners team that has succumbed to the Yankees onslaught on so many previous occasions, both in the regular and post season. Boisterous crowds gathered around televisions at Seattle bars last night and cheered wildly when Boston made the final put-out against the Yankees.

I have to say that in my life as a fan, watching the Sox beat the Yankees in the seventh and final game in the division series ranked higher on my joy meter than when I lived in Florida and the Marlins won the World Series. I’m not a Boston fan, never have been. What I always have been is an anti-Yankee fan, born in the cheap seats of Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium. I hate to use words like ‘love’ and ‘hate’ in any sentence about a game so I’ll say that New York was a team I liked to dislike.

Seattle fans are now, after seven games, as familiar with the intricacies of the Boston Red Sox as we are with our own team. Seattle has a lot of transplants from the other end of the country but not enough to explain the sea of fans sporting Red Sox apparel. I think I can safely say that if a team from Cuba was playing the Yankees in game seven of the playoffs we’d be wearing their hat, but I think Seattle’s affinity for Boston goes beyond the adage that our favorite team is the Mariners and whoever is playing the Yankees. Let’s face it, most baseball teams lose a lot and many haven’t won a World Series in this century or the last. Maybe if the Yanks can go 25-30 years without winning the Series I’ll start cheering for them.

Most fans in Seattle had all but given up on baseball after the Mariners’ terrible year, and the thought of watching the Yankees march inexorably to the Series was too much to take. In game three with the Yanks already leading the series 2-0 Boston began its slide to yet another loss. I couldn’t watch and left the game in the sixth inning. I got an unwanted phone call later in the evening with the report that Boston lost the game 18-9. I thought I was done with baseball for the year. I bought some warm clothes and I thought I could survive without baseball until next spring.

Of course I kept watching, what's the alternative? Football? Practice piano? Do something even remotely constructive? If you read the papers you know the rest of the story and the Yankees/Red Sox series has only been half of it. Almost completely forgotten (at least by AL fans) has been the incredible series in the other league which has also gone to seven games. Winter will come, but baseball has been putting up a truly heroic fight.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Fall Dating Guide

It’s time again for the annual Leftbanker Fall Dating Guide, your best bet for connecting with hip and attractive single men in your area. I know that all of the readers here have come to rely on the Fall Dating Guide to tell them the latest trends in dating and romance and I promise that this year’s edition will not disappoint anyone. I am privy to information that other journalists won’t see for months or perhaps even years—they may never see it. The huge advantage that I have over regular journalists is my ability to make shit up. Because of my long-standing connections in the dating industry you have relied on me to predict well in advance trends which are soon to take the nation by storm. The hot new trend this fall for women is…you guessed it…men!

Men really have it together these days; men are bouncing back after decades of being the butt of jokes and the target of insults hurled by American women. According to a recent poll by Maxim magazine, men have never been in greater demand. Men are back in style and it doesn’t matter if they are fat, bald, stupid, sports-obsessed, alcoholic, erectile dysfunctional, unemployed, living with mom, or asthmatic; the word on the street is that you need to get one as soon as possible. How can you snare one of these enigmatic creatures for your very own? Let me give you a few pointers.

Girls, if your present strategy of only dating guys who yell obscenities at you from construction sites isn’t going as well as you had planned then perhaps you need to consider the Leftbanker Fall Dating Guide For Women. If you think that perhaps you have been going about this dating thing all wrong let me assure you that you have been going about it all wrong. If you think that perhaps you are too late in the search for an even mildly interesting man let me tell you that you probably are too late but I can help you feel comfortable with settling for someone completely beneath you.

First of all, forget about all of that internet dating stuff. Let’s face it; you never had any luck with that in the past. You would spend three weeks exchanging e-mails with someone who seemed nice only to find that you were on the verge of falling in love with a ten year old boy using his parents’ computer. It only shows how truly desperate you are when you told him to give you a call in ten years. I have a new strategy with a proven track record that I guarantee will work for you.

If you randomly dial numbers on your cell phone eventually a man will answer. The fact that he answered an unknown number means that he is probably available and as desperate as you are. If he seems nice you can agree to a meeting. The initial meeting is the greatest stumbling block in any relationship. Of course, meeting for dinner is out of the question. That is too much of an investment in time and money to squander on a potential and probable loser. Even meeting for a drink is too much of a commitment at this early stage of the game. At this point you are probably saying to yourself, “Fuck it, I’ll rent a video and stay home.”

Although that is certainly the smart thing to do, my guide will encourage you to proceed with abandon, if by ‘abandon’ you mean putting as much effort and planning into the first encounter as you would a ransom drop in a kidnapping. The way I check out potential dates is I have them stand at a bus stop at a specified time. Wearing a disguise (my preferred disguises are either a nun or a Mexican revolutionary), I ride a crowded bus by the rendezvous point and surreptitiously take pictures of the subject which I immediately analyze back home in my forensics lab. Next I go through their trash looking for credit card statements, receipts, cancelled checks, clues to their dietary habits, cell phone records, discarded letters, and other personal matter in order to build a better picture of “Miss Right.” After a few days of 24 hour surveillance of the subject I then conduct extensive clandestine interviews with their friends, relatives, and neighbors while posing as a Jehovah’s Witness. This may seem a little extreme but I don’t want to hook up with some weirdo. Some guides encourage you to break into a potential date’s apartment to search for clues but I feel that people have a right to their privacy.

When you finally agree to meet your date face to face make sure to do it in a public place--preferably the lobby of the police department. Keep the initial encounter brief. If everything seems to go well you can agree on a second meeting. When you are ready to leave make sure to be polite, shake hands firmly, try to be friendly as you squirt a steady stream of pepper spray directly into his eyes, and then make your exit being sure to change cabs at least three times on the way back to your apartment. As a precautionary measure don’t forget to change the locks on your doors and obtain a new phone number. If he is persistent enough to obtain your new number you may have to take the next step of legally changing your name to Maria Sanchez and moving to La Paz, Bolivia to become a yoga instructor. Wait at least two years before listing your yoga classes in the La Paz yellow pages.

The good news is that Latin men are at least as uninteresting, vulgar, and tasteless as their American counterparts so you will feel right at home. Good luck down there. Try internet dating.

Monday, October 18, 2004

TO REALIZE THE AMERICAN DREAM YOU HAVE TO BE UNCONSCIOUS


After an exhausting day of shopping at the Galleria Mall I can’t think of a better way to relax than to enjoy a few margaritas and some fine food at La Casa de Mierda, a Mexican restaurant located at the north end of the mall and at 25 other locations in the metropolitan area. It's the biggest Mexican restaurant franchise in the country so you know it's good. You should try the grande burrito and make sure you get a double shot of tequila on the side for your margarita—you may need a little buzz to deal with all the heavy traffic on the way home. There is plenty of free parking at the mall so don’t do anything silly like car pool or take the bus--the bus is only for poor people.

What if you get too drunk to find your Ford Excursion in the parking lot? Don’t worry, just crawl back inside the mall and check out the brand new Cineplex 35, that’s right, 35 theaters and all of them are showing Sister Act VI*. Isn’t that the most marvelous thing you have ever beheld? I won’t tell you how the movie ends but I just about shit myself laughing. I actually did shit myself laughing but only because that Mexican food goes right through me. No problem, they were having a big sale at J Crew on slacks today.

After the movie you should be sober enough to find your car. Next time use the valet parking so you won’t have to stagger around the parking lot for twenty minutes hitting your remote car alarm. There are hundreds of Excursions out there because everyone around here is so outdoorsy. Better stop to fill up the tank. That Excursion sure is a gas hog but man is it comfortable. Did you feel that little bump? I had the same thing happen to me last week and then when I got home I found a bicycle crushed up in the wheel well. Just think what that bike would have done to a small car. It might have jolted the car so hard I could have lost my cell phone connection. I have a family to think about so that’s why I drive the biggest truck on the road.

I know you are still feeling a little tipsy but you’d better step on it if you are going to catch the season premiere of that reality show where the people do all of those dangerous things. This week I think they are going to parachute out of an airplane. There is a ride like that at Six Flags that I want to try some day. If you Tivo the show you can edit out all of those annoying commercials about joining the Army.

Aren’t you sick and tired of hearing about that stupid war? There are at least two articles in the paper about it almost every day. It is so boring I wish everyone would just shut up about it. That’s why I subscribe to People Magazine. After a day of shopping at the mall, having lunch and drinks at the Mexican joint, seeing Sister Act VI, and then watching reality TV at home, sometimes I just need some mindless entertainment .

*I know I should pick another movie to pick on but I’m sure Sister Act is the most awful movie ever made although I haven’t actually seen it.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Don't Pee in Our Pool and We Won't Swim in Your Toilet:

A New Approach to Fighting Terrorism

When I was growing up there was a deep-rooted and very powerful urban myth that held in check the bladder of every single kid in every single swimming pool in America. Perhaps what I am about to say isn’t news to any of you, perhaps you all grew up under the same reign of terror and intimidation, perhaps you grew up believing that there was a chemical in the water that would react and release a highly visible dye if you peed in the pool.

I have been doing a lot of intensive research into the pool dye mystery and I was assured by scientists at Dow Chemical that no such technology exists to deter preadolescents from urinating while they swim. A spokesman for Union Carbide confessed that they developed a solution that would kill bathers who relieved themselves in the pool but their engineers had no success with developing a harmless dye that merely embarrasses the weak-bladdered swimmer.

I find it positively astounding that although a reactive dye does not exist there was not a single reported incident of pool peeing from 1964 until 1998 when young swimmers were able to debunk this myth on their own through sources available on the internet. When I think back on all of the time I wasted, all of the fun that I missed as a kid getting out of the pool just to use the restroom, I can only shake my head in respect for whoever created the myth of the pool pee dye.

What I propose is that the CIA begin development on a new urban myth that could work to thwart terrorism. About 99.999% of intimidation is just what people think will happen if they follow a certain course of action. Neither I nor any of my friends had actually witnessed the pool pee dye but we cowered at the thought of such a powerful deterrent. From what I get from the news, most terrorists don’t have as much on the ball as even a bunch of unruly kids at the pool. How sharp could you be if someone can talk you into blowing yourself up with a car full of explosives for the sake of religion? I couldn’t even be talked into waking up at nine in the morning to go to church because of religion.

The key to creating a powerful urban myth is to find the weak spot in the subjects you are trying to coerce or intimidate. The pool dye myth preyed on the fear little kids have of being embarrassed in front of their friends. I feel that the major mistake we have made in our war against terrorism has been our total failure in targeting the weaknesses of the terrorists. We have heard politicians saying that we are going to kill the terrorists. If we have learned one thing from these maniacs it is that they don’t care about dying because for them living means living in a culture where women walk around covered head to toe with bed linen.

If I know anything about Muslims it is that they are touchy fuckers on the subject of their women. What if suicide bombers believed an urban myth that if they attacked us all of their female family members would be forced to star in the next Girls Gone Wild video? I think that if we put some legs on that rumor we could stop screening people at airports altogether. If terrorists fall for this myth hook, line, and sinker like my friends and I did for the swimming pool scare then we won’t have much to worry about. If terrorists thought that their women folk would end up in midget porn videos if they carry out attacks, we would live in a safer world. “Thank you for flying TWA, Mister Bin Laden. Can I get you a magazine, a pillow, an AK47, or a magazine for your AK47? How are your wives and daughters doing, Mister Bin Laden?”

Friday, October 08, 2004

Going Upriver

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry
directed by George Butler


Because of the low quality of a lot of the archive footage this is one of those movies that will look a lot better on a TV, but I’m grateful that I had the privacy of a largely-empty, large movie theater on this rainy afternoon. As a veteran I felt close to the movie and its subject matter, and as I sat in the dark all by myself, imagining a horror I never had to face, I needed the extra space to breath at times.

The opponents of John Kerry would like me to believe that I am being foolish for admiring this man while they hold up an empty suit that lives on a fake ranch in Texas as the alternative. I only have to quote a short passage in the film to make my decision on which of the two candidates has character. In the course of Kerry’s testimony in front of the foreign relations committee he is questioned about his service record:

“Do you have a Purple Heart?”
“Yes,” John Kerry says.
“How many Oak Leaf clusters?”
“Three.”
“You've been wounded three times?”
“Yes.”
“I have no further questions Mister Chairman.”

After being wounded in combat doing the job America has sent you to do there should never be any more questions about your commitment to this country, but manufacturing questions is about the only plan of attack available to a president who chose to sit out the war in Viet Nam stateside, a president who has placed American soldiers in harms way for reasons that become less clear with every passing day. Kerry routinely risked his life in combat. The Bush people knew that this represented an incredible advantage in the issue of character between the two candidates so they manufactured a smear campaign to lie about John Kerry’s war record. That is a tremendous insult to all of the men and women who have served this country in our military. If you have made up your mind about Kerry on the strength of the lies of the swift boat smear campaign then you need to watch this movie and do some rethinking.

During my enlistment I worked hard at every task I was assigned; I can say that I gave it my all. I was lucky enough to be part of a very competitive unit of highly motivated people but I was never fired upon, and I certainly was never wounded.

I have been out of the service for quite some time now but to this day I will always buy a drink for any kid in the military. I call the service the world’s biggest fraternity, it’s the fraternity I never wanted to join in college. I sure as hell would never denigrate a fellow service member who saw combat and was wounded—to do so would show a tremendous lack of character.

As the movie points out, John Kerry was motivated to join the military by the sense of patriotism he felt by John Kennedy’s inauguration speech. I was motivated to join the military after the failed rescue of the American hostages in Iran in 1980. After returning from a year studying abroad, the thought of returning to a college campus to finish my degree seemed small and joining the Air Force seemed like the opposite. I was right and I still feel that was the greatest experience of my life. I am still grateful for the friendships that I developed during that time.

There was no war while I served in the Air Force. We practically prayed for a war, as the job we did was completely operational even in peacetime. Be careful what you wish for would be what John Kerry would have told my comrades and me. He got his war and some of his comrades never made it back. Over 58,000 never made it home as almost any American can now tell you. Now the question is how many Americans won’t make it home from Iraq and Afghanistan?

Any American who considers Fox News a way to stay informed can tell you that John Kerry threw away the medals he received in Viet Nam—a traitorous act they say. This is ironic when you think that these same people don’t appear to value those medals (a Purple Heart equals a band aid) and think that Kerry didn’t deserve his. The most emotional moment in the film for me came when the Veterans Against the War, the group Kerry was helping to lead, threw away their medals in a highly symbolic gesture calling for the return of all U.S. soldiers still fighting and dying in Viet Nam which at that time was already a lost cause.

I have a couple of military medals myself and regardless of what I feel about them, if anyone else tried to discount their value he and I would have some words. Those medals are mine to do with whatever I want and I think that throwing them away in a symbolic act to illustrate the horror of war is a lot more noble than hanging them on the wall of an office to impress some business cronies.

Speaking out against an unjust or unnecessary war is certainly as patriotic to me as performing military service. While watching Going Upriver you realize that John Kerry’s activism against the Viet Nam war was equally as heroic as his heroic service in that conflict. I can say without any doubt that more than any candidate in my lifetime, I will be proud to have John Kerry as my president.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

English Anyone?

Question: How many snowboarders does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: Hell’a snowboarders, dude.


Snowboarders have a reputation for being ferociously stupid and inarticulate. They aren’t any dumber than most other tribal subcultures of modern American youth but they are a good subject for humor. All of the people who are the most susceptible to the influence of pop culture jargon and slang, these victims of marketing, have one thing in common: They are--for the most part--a post-literate society

Every time I hear a new MTV catch-phrase like hell’a (a lot) or flava (fuck if I know what that means) I am reminded of Haitian Kreyol and of rapidly mutating disease viruses. Whenever I hear someone use one of those weak verbal expressions I ask them if they could please spell it for me. If you listen to the current hip hop artist du jour give an interview what you will hear is a lot of garbled words that add up to almost no content. They should have these stars write out in their own words what they are trying to communicate. Perhaps this will make them realize that their spoken words convey almost no meaning.

Haitian Kreyol has been adrift in a linguistic storm since Haiti’s independence in 1804. The Caribbean nation has an alarming 85% rate of illiteracy. The language now spoken in Haiti has not been moored securely by a written language. From French the islanders have incorporated many African dialects along with bits and pieces of English, Portuguese, and Spanish. All languages borrow from others but Haitian Kreyol has continued borrowing, evolving, mutating, and making itself all but unintelligible from the language spoken by Haitians of only a generation ago.

On the other hand, ancient Greek and Modern Greek are remarkably similar although separated by two millennia. What helped to keep Greek on its linguistic foundation were the writings of the ancient Greeks. Once the oral traditions of Greece were committed to writing, Greek had a reference point for all literate people (There are other reasons for the lack of dynamism in the Greek language but they don’t strengthen my argument so I will not address them).

Our own language had a more rocky start. English began as the language of Germanic warriors who came to England on the heels of the Romans. Their language was slightly altered by the scant Latin they borrowed from the preceding occupiers. Christianity further accelerated the Latin influence upon English. The Norman Conquest brought thousands and thousands of French words into English. English adapted well and used the loan words to strengthen itself and introduce an increased subtlety as exampled by words that are almost—but not quite—synonymous. ‘Ask’ is not quite the same as ‘demand.’ ‘Start/ commence’ ‘answer/respond’ ‘freedom/liberty’ are just a few of these slightly synonymous pairs that have added to the precision and flexibility of our native tongue.

Eventually we got around to writing down English and through the written word we cast a mold. This mold has been the vessel that has carried the language across the centuries. The language has continued to evolve but the changes occur over centuries—not within the time a song is on the pop charts. From Chaucer we get an English that is almost entirely intelligible to modern readers:

This Absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie,
Derk was the nyght as pitch, or as the cole,
And that at the window out she putte hir hole,
and Absolon, hym fil no bet wers (fared no better or worse),
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers (arse)


Chaucer began work on The Canterbury Tales in 1386. From Chaucer English progresses in the written form with the Bible of John Wycliffe and later, that of William Tyndale. Two hundred years after Chaucer we find the writings of Shakespeare whose language seems quaint for our times but certainly more readable than The Canterbury Tales.

English was the language of the people and became the language of the government.
It is difficult to believe that quite a bit of effort was actually made to simplify English spelling. I’m not the greatest speller so I’d rather not even think about the state of the English language before “simplification.” What did happen over the centuries is that English became rooted in a semi-standardized written form. Increased literacy rates among citizens of English speaking countries has grounded the language and kept it fairly stable for a few hundred years.

I would say that the novel has done a great deal to codify the English language. Novels brought the language to anyone who was able to read. Narrative fiction side-stepped the issue of regional dialects and accents; American readers could read a Dickens novel and pronounce the dialogue any way they saw fit. Few writers tried to write in the actual dialect of the people. Novelists who wrote outside of Standard English were and continue to be the exception. The mold has been cast.

Slang has always been with us. English continues to evolve and is strengthened by the evolution. The deliberate attempt by the MTV/pop culture engines to create a new vocabulary for every new hip hop artist or boy band is more about marketing than language. Most of the pop slang offerings stay with us about as long as a song is on the pop charts. The influence of commerce on language has always been with us but the power and scope of commerce has grown exponentially. The English language is bigger than any industry and will continue to prosper and to thrive. There has never been a post-literate culture in the history of man so I suppose it is anyone’s guess as to where we will be taken by the armies of the inarticulate.

Just take a look at the short history of Rap and it’s anyone’s guess today what they were saying back in 1992 in this Public Enemy song, Tie Goes to the Runner.

To the blind Def and Dumb
Hard to see’em comin’
But dey come here dey come
Don’t be dumb diggity dumb
Politikin’ writin’ bad checks
Still dey gettin’ wreck
Goin’ fo’ a nigga neck
Rollin’ in a blue ‘n’ white gang
Ready to bang biggeddy bang


My spell-check had a harder time with that passage which is 12 years old than with the Chaucer lines from 618 years ago.

Intellectual Property and Going Straight

ON INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AND GOING LEGIT

I downloaded my first legal song yesterday. I have downloaded a few bootleg songs via Kazaa.com in the past but I found the process unreliable, time-consuming, and the computer viruses that piggy-backed on the music made maintenance on my laptop a chore. I deleted the Kazaa program from my computer along with the few illegal songs I had downloaded. This wasn’t on some moral grounds because I felt guilty about stealing music; I just wanted to purge all of the viruses from my hard drive once and for all.

I heard a song in a coffee shop yesterday. It was an acoustic version of an old Alan Parsons Project tune. Alan Parsons was some sort of dorky art rock band from the 80’s and I always hated their music. The song is called Eye in the Sky. The original version was horrifically over-produced and utterly forgettable. It wasn’t completely forgettable because I sat up as I heard the new version on the coffee shop stereo. At first I was struck by the rawness of this woman’s voice and the stark acoustic arrangement. I had to listen up to the chorus to realize that I knew this song but I had to struggle to recognize its origin. Her rendition of Eye in the Sky was so good it made the original sound like an awful counterfeit.

This singer obviously found more in this song than I did when it was all over the radio back in 1980 something. How she found the beauty in this piece is fascinating. It's like someone finding a diamond ring at the beach with a metal detector. Now that I listen to her version I can see that some of the phrasing is pretty remarkable. The composition is simple enough but you can say the same thing about a lot of Cole Porter's music.

The song was on the Muzak system so no one working there could tell me who the singer was. I started thinking about all of the times I have heard a wonderful song on the radio and then was never able to hear again. I remember once when I was living in South America I heard a Brazilian song on the radio that immediately grabbed me. By chance I had a tape recorder next to me and was able to tape the last part of the song. The station I was listening to never gave the names of the artist so I was stuck trying to track down the singer with only a few measures of the song recorded on a crappy portable tape recorder. I kept that tape with me for years but I was never able to find the song again.

With this song I had better luck. I knew the original song so I did a Google search and I found that the name of the new artist is Jonatha Brooke. I had never heard of her but I haven’t paid much attention to pop music lately. I loaded the itunes® software and downloaded the song. The whole process cost me $1 and took a couple of minutes—time and money well spent as far as I’m concerned.

Although I certainly can afford to pay for downloaded music I don’t feel the least bit guilty about burning a borrowed CD on to my laptop. I really like The Killers CD Hot Fuss, and I’m sure they are nice guys but I’m not going to lose any sleep over the fact that I borrowed a friend’s CD to make my copy. I have spent enough money on music already for more than one lifetime. From what I read about the recording industry the artists don’t make much on sales commissions and rely on advances and concert performances for their livelihood.

This story doesn’t have a completely happy ending because I don’t think the itunes format merges with my Windows Media Player. They wonder why people bootleg songs from the free sites.

EYE IN THE SKY - Alan Parsons Project

Don't think sorry's easily said
Don't try turning tables instead
You've taken lots of chances before
But I ain't gonna give any more
Don't ask me
That's how it goes
'Cause part of me knows what you're thinking...

Don't say words you're gonna regret
Don't let the fire rush to your head
I've heard the accusations before
And I ain't gonna take any more
Believe me
The sun in your eyes
Made some of the lies worth believing

CHORUS:
I am the eye in the sky
Looking at you
I can read your mind
I am the maker of rules
Dealing with fools
I can cheat you blind
And I don't need to see any more
To know that I can read your mind, I can read your mind

Don't leave false illusions behind
Don't cry 'cause I ain't changing my mind
So find another fool like before
'Cause I ain't gonna live anymore believing
Some of the lies while all of the signs are deceiving

Monday, October 04, 2004

Never Better

An old song comes on the radio and I am immediately brought back in time to a bygone era. Things were simpler then. Men were men, women were women, and surgeons didn’t make fortunes making men more like women, or women more like women who suddenly need much bigger bras. I am flooded with memories all because of a song on the radio. As I listen and remember I also get around to remembering that I hate that song. Not only did I not like that song back then but now I am listening to a remake of that song by some new pop star who annoys the living crap out of me. I have never been one to dwell in the past and now I can’t wait until it is three minutes in the future so this song will be over.

Whenever someone asks me how I am doing I always respond, “Never better.” This almost always takes the person by surprise as they are expecting you to give a usual conversation-ender like “Fine.” They don’t really care how you are doing but when you say “Never better” people often become annoyed by the overwhelming cheeriness of that answer. “Really?” is how people usually follow up. I think that it makes people feel that they aren’t living up to their own potential to hear that someone else has never been better. They probably think that I read a better self-help book over the weekend than the one they wasted their time reading.

If I am pressed far enough I tell people that I just say that for fun. Their relief is so transparent that you can practically hear them think, “Thank God he’s miserable just like me.” Although “never better” is my joke response I think that on an existential level I have never been better. I would hope that with every passing day I am a more distilled and better version of myself. I hope that I have been learning something every day. But what does all this have to do with a song on the radio?

I have noticed that most people—most people—have fairly shallow and parochial views about music. Do you know people who are struck in the same musical era they inhabited while in high school? This nostalgia becomes creepy when these people move into their 30’s and 40’s. I also have noticed that lots of people generally don’t like music they don’t recognize. I had a young woman tell me that a John Coltrane song was ‘elevator music’ because it was instrumental and elevator music is instrumental. I shudder to think of what makes up her music collection.

I tell people in their 20’s to start learning about jazz and classical music now because if they are still listening exclusively to what they listen to now when they are 40 they will be brain-dead zombies. If they are listening to a cover of some crappy song they listened to in high school when they are 40 they will be retarded brain-dead zombies.

When you ask people what kind of music they like almost everyone says that they like all kinds of music. Then they will qualify that by saying “except country and heavy metal” or some other exclusion. Open up to music and you will be better than ever.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Just Another Liberal Blowhard

I can only hope that the debate on Thursday evening can put to rest a couple of myths perpetuated by the Republican Party. First, George Bush is not a good debater. Second, he is not just a ‘normal guy.’ Bush’s handlers have taken his greatest weakness—his almost complete lack of intellect—and have tried to spin this into a plus. “He is stupid, just like you,” they say. I don’t know about you but I’m not stupid and I’m not voting for him.

During the debate Bush looked like what he really is: A spoiled rich kid who is used to getting his way and doesn’t appreciate being challenged. It is no secret that President Bush has lacked any sort of desire to challenge himself intellectually in his life. Sure, he got his ticket punched at a couple of America’s most expensive universities but if he has ever read a book in his life for pleasure that isn’t apparent in the image he has created of himself as the down home working guy who has a fake ranch. The Bush people have worked to make Americans suspicious of a man like Kerry who has worked to better himself intellectually over the course of his life. They say it is a bad thing that he speaks fluent French. God forbid we have a president who speaks another language. What way is that for a world leader to act?

Bush has based his entire campaign not on his record, which has been disastrous, but on this whole “flip-flop” issue with his opponent and his own willingness to be resolute and steadfast in whatever it is he is doing. Bush has claimed that Kerry is forever changing his mind on what to do in Iraq but he has yet to spell out what his own plan is--and he is the acting president. Just exactly what Bush’s resolve is all about is not very clear. Is he resolute about continuing to allow a complete breakdown in civil order in Iraq? There may or may not be elections in Iraq in January but there will certainly not be democracy any time soon.

If Iraq is only about a matter of wills, about being resolute, then I can tell you that we have already lost. How much more resolute can you be than strapping yourself with explosives and blowing up a bunch of women and children? That is the kind of resolve that we are dealing with in Iraq. Bush has stayed the course, as he likes to say, for a year and a half and Iraq looks worse off than ever these past few weeks. We are losing, folks.

If your tactics aren’t working you need to change them to fit the immediate circumstances in battle. You could call that flip-flopping or you could call that effective leadership. Not that I know anything about battle—I was in the Air Force. We had maids, for God’s sake.

The biggest mistake that liberals make—and I’ve said this for years—is that they shouldn’t let the conservatives define the argument. If after the debate Bush wants to say that Kerry would ask France’s permission to wage a mistaken war then let him. No one points out that Bush has to ask Cheney or Karl Rove permission whenever he wants to go on vacation. Kerry needs to keep hammering away on his agenda. Osama bin Laden attacked us, not Hussein. Bush gave Osama a get out of jail card at Tora Bora. Iraq was the wrong war. Bush did not follow the advice of his top intelligence and military advisors on Afghanistan and Iraq and we are now paying the price. I defy anyone to show me a credible news source that says things are going well in either country.

Kerry won the debate. Bush looked foolish. Let the desperate Bush team try to spin things. Kerry looked like the man who should be our president.

*We asked a random female who she planned to vote for in November. She said that Bush was her man because if John Kerry were elected dogs and cats would be living together. Even taken as a joke her reasoning was utterly pathetic, and she wasn’t joking. I asked her later if she wanted to go back to my house and watch some dog on cat porn. As a Democrat I have access to that kind of stuff.