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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Walking, Bikes, and Trains

My kind of transportation. Posted by Picasa

Is it just me or is riding trains really cool? This morning I got up at a civilized hour, had a cup of coffee and a shower, and rode a bike about four miles to the train station in Highland Park. I bought a ticket to Chicago’s Ogilvie Transportation Center ($3.80) and about five minutes later the inbound train pulled up—right on time at 10:34. I love the fact that I used two 19th century modes of transportation for the trip.

Two nights ago I got tagged with the run to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. It wasn’t like I needed another reason to view automobile travel as completely insane. Traffic was rather bad but probably better than usual at that hour. There were two pretty serious accidents cleared off to the side of the toll road with fire trucks and ambulances in attendance. The airport itself presents a fairly intense driving environment, especially when you are trying to answer an unfamiliar cell phone. It’s not that I am incapable of handling these tasks hoisted upon us by modern society, but I would much prefer to sit calmly on a train while looking out the window and typing on my laptop as I am now.

The amount of gadgetry and other highly-developed motor skills that we are expected to master in this day and age is something we all take for granted. It isn’t all piled on us at once; it comes to us in degrees. An answering machine becomes voice mail, a cassette deck becomes a complicated mp3 player, an automobile morphs into a high-tech contraption with an instrument panel that rivals a fighter jet. I have more than my fair share of these wonders but that doesn’t prevent me from wondering if it is all worth it.

I have made a conscious decision to bypass the whole text messaging fad. If it turns out to be more than that I can get onboard at a station further down the track. I didn’t learn how to program a VCR and that didn’t kill me. I know quite a few Americans who have never bothered to learn how to drive a car. I have found that I haven’t been able to live without an automobile completely, at least in the places where I have lived, but that will probably soon change when I get settled into my new home.

Today I am perfectly happy to avoid car travel. This train to Chicago is almost completely full so I guess that a lot of other people are also saying “no” to cars. I think that a lot more people would do the same if they were offered any reasonable alternative to driving. If I were driving now I’d be stressed out in traffic and just generally annoyed. I also would have missed the entertaining antics of the group of children on the train making their first trip into Chicago. I love how kids don’t mind ooohing and aaahing upon seeing the magnificent spectacle of the Chicago skyline—we all do it on the inside. I know that this flies in the face of the American ideal of freedom and independence but driving bugs me. I’m not too crazy about airline travel, either, but that is a necessary evil. Cars are also a necessary evil but I don’t find them as necessary as most people and the less necessary the less evil.

When I get to the end of this train ride I will finish my trip with about a mile walk. Walking, bikes, and trains are still among the best means for personal transportation yet many people rely very little on these methods or not at all.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Kill Posted by Picasa

Coming to a Theater Near You

They are all around us. You may have one living in your own yard. We tend to think of them as fury, woodland creatures that scamper to and fro. Scamper is a verb we have reserved for only the most harmless, the most benign of God’s creatures, and we only say things like “to and fro” when describing the most unthreatening of animals. You probably think that squirrels and others in the Rodentia order pose no threat to humans. That’s right, squirrels are rodents and every bit as vicious as other members of their clan, filthy beasts like rats and the terrifying capybara which can weigh more than 25 kilograms—that’s more than 55 pounds of man-eating beast for you hicks who aren’t yet hip to the metric system. While you are trying to convert kilos into pounds a full-grown capybara will eat your entire family. If you are lucky you have a few overweight children and it will spare you…this time.

What characterize these killers are their four incisor teeth that they must constantly file down by chewing. Sure, sometimes they may grind down innocently on acorns or seeds that they steal from the bird feeder in your yard, but what happens if these resources are not readily available? I’ll tell you what happens; they turn their fangs on humans. There are few things more sickening than seeing a squirrel bury its teeth into a man’s arm, ripping through flesh like shit through a goose. After making a pitiful mockery of the epidermis, a rodent will tear through muscle and tendon; from there it will devour vital internal organs until it finally finds its dessert: bone. A family of squirrels can completely devour an adult human in less then three minutes.

There was a time when people thought that sharks were no threat to our way of life. They did their thing and we did ours, or so we thought in our blissful ignorance. It took the movie Jaws to instruct the American public about the true nature of sharks. Finally a movie has come along to warn us of the frightful reality of squirrels. Gnaw tells the story of a peaceful Chicago suburb that learns the hard way about these cruel and heartless carnivores. After you see Gnaw you will never again let your children play in the yard without an armed escort.

That's all I got.

Why Rush Limbaugh Hates Us

Rush Limbaugh is a very angry man. He hates liberals. He detests Democrats. Rush thinks that liberals are the worst scum to ever have walked the face of the earth. Can you blame him? When he was just a boy he was sexually molested by a liberal. Although the police report doesn’t specify, young Rush may have been debauched by a hippie, possibly hippies, quite possibly many, many, MANY hippies*. Please think about that the next time you judge Rush harshly over his moronic views on national politics or his jingoistic opinions on foreign policy.

I know what you are all saying, being the hyper-liberal, ultra-politically correct, do-gooders that you all are. You’re saying that there is nothing funny about a child being molested. It isn’t funny unless it happens to a know-nothing, draft-dodging, proto-fascist sack of diseased manure like Rush Limbaugh who mocked someone with Parkinson’s Disease.

As a matter of fact, Rush was an adult at the time of the hippie gang rape...and it was consensual, very consensual, if you know what I mean. Are you happy now? Does that assuage the guilt you experienced over the rush of pleasure you felt about hearing of young Rush’s misfortune? He just looked younger than his eighteen years because he was such a corpulent, little red-faced cherub. He was so plump and cute back then that you would never have guessed that he would turn out to be the grotesque caricature of a capitalist pig that he became.

Think about that story the next time you hear one of his radio rants against liberals. Through his angry words it is impossible not to hear his desperate cries for help. With every slanderous diatribe he hurls at progressives, you can almost hear him pining for the time he spent an entire three-day weekend working a port-a-potty glory hole at a Grateful Dead concert—the best three days of his life according to his memoirs. The only way poor Rush can perform marital relations with his sixth wife is if he fantasizes about a psychedelic school bus filled with long-haired Viet Nam War protesters.

Every angry word that Rush utters against welfare cheats and environmentalists is simply the work of a man in complete denial. It’s sad to think that in order for Mr. Limbaugh to fulfill his true sexual orientation he has to wear a disguise consisting of a tasteful floral sun dress and a hat with flowers and fruit on the rim. Then he cruises bars frequented by union workers or PETA volunteers. His fetish for liberals has gotten so bad that he actually carries around a picture of Fidel Castro wearing a Speedo® in his wallet. He spends thousands of dollars every week calling a 1-800 number that charges $5.95 a minute to tell him intimate things about Noam Chomsky.

*I thought about that last ‘many’ for a while and I just felt it added immensely to the humor value of that particular sentence. Any humorist worth his salt knows that three of anything makes it funnier.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ten Song Shuffle

With all of the music on your computer at your disposal, put your play button on shuffle and write down the first ten songs that your machine kicks out. Forgive me for not giving credit but I can’t remember where I got this idea, perfect for someone like me who currently has a lot of free time.

I have something like 60 gigs of music on my hard drive so there is a lot to work with.

1) The Honk Kong Triad by Thievery Corporation. Synth-pop instrumental.

2) Radio Ga Ga by Queen. At 5:43 minutes this song seems like it was probably too long for radio. I recently downloaded Queen’s Greatest Hits after hearing “You’re My Best Friend” on a movie soundtrack and realized that I had none of their music.

3) Jam Blues by Charlie Parker. I think that I have every note recorded by the Bird, I even have some of his outtakes.

4) Adagio from Serenade #10 by Mozart. This is a great piece, the deceptive genius of which was pointed out by Salieri in the film Amadeus.

5) The Therapist by unknown artist from the soundtrack to the movie Next Stop Wonderland. All of the music is either Brazilian bossa nova or heavily influenced by it.

6) Family Reunion by The O’Jays. Not one of this Motown dynasty’s better cuts.

7) Hot Poop by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention from their album We’re only in it for the money. Clocking in at only :26 seconds, this hardly qualifies as a song, but rules are rules.

8) Noa e Fácil by Marisa Monte. Super-sexy Brazilian chanteuse (or however you say that in Portuguese).

9) Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie.

10) Rodenos by El Niño de Ronda. It’s slightly ironic that my list of songs ends with a Spanish flamenco number considering that my next permanent address will be in that country.

Movies are Dead, Long Live TV!

Perhaps I am years behind the cinematic zeitgeist but I have come to the conclusion that feature movies are rapidly becoming obsolete. Reading has already been dead for about a decade but that is the subject of another essay. Think of this essay as the obituary for movie theaters and the feature film. It has been a good run, about one hundred years, but the end is in sight.

The first nail in the coffin of movie theaters and feature films that play there is the incredible advancement in home entertainment centers. Big screen, high definition televisions with surround-sound audio now rival the movie house experience and you aren’t subjected to over-priced and lousy movie theater food. There is also the pause button for any necessary interruptions. But mvoies have even bigger problems than their lack of convenience.

I just finished watching the final episode of season 4 of The Wire. I thought that this serialized police drama was brilliant from the opening scene which had Officer McNaulty (sp?) sitting on a Baltimore stoop talking to a little thug about the homicide of another little thug known as “Snot Boogy.” The Wire made me realize that television has far surpassed the artistic reach of feature films.

It is difficult for me to watch a movie without lamenting the detailed character development that is so much a part of the good television series like The Sopranos, The Shield, Rescue Me, and Deadwood, among others. The 2-3 hour time constraint of feature films now seems like an almost overwhelming liability that few directors are able to overcome.

Whatever criticism anyone may have about The Wire (I can think of very few), you can’t say that it relies on formula. The fact that every season has somewhere around 12 hours of screen time to get the story across completely frees the writers from the crippling burden of economy. Before these HBO series came along, TV never took advantage of the luxury it enjoyed of almost limitless time, choosing instead to reinvent the wheel week-to-week, seldom carrying a single story line for more than one episode.

It was only towards the end of this final season of The Wirethat I realized that it was the television equivalent of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel that portrayed life in New York City from the highest strata to its lowest depths. The dozens and dozens of characters introduced in the series are all given extremely complex lives. Some of the minor players probably have more speaking lines than leading actors in feature films.

Most movies don’t have time for routine police work yet this is the very foundation of The Wire, which takes its name from the most mundane of police procedures, a wiretap. It is also difficult for movies to flesh out good guys and bad guys. The Wire serves up a series of villains that are a mix of Machiaveli’s The Prince and the metro crime blotter of The Baltimore Sun. The Darwinian world of inner-city drug kingpins is laid out in violent detail. The first season begins with the duo of Avon Barksdale and Springer Bell, two frighteningly ruthless sociopaths intent on creating an empire from the drug trade. A couple of seasons later the writers hatch a criminal that is Barksdale and Bell’s worst nightmare, the nihilistic and cold-blooded upstart, Marlow Stansfield.

Short of a National Geographic documentary, you will not hear such attention to linguistic detail as you do from the characters in The Wire. Every character’s dialect has a unique stamp. I don’t know how anyone could write this type of dialogue so I assume that the fine actors on the show put a lot of individuality to their speaking roles.

Perhaps simply for the sake of expediency, movies and TV shows have relied on the tired cop show cliches that have been with since the genre was invented. Cops in movies and TV have been living off themselves for so long that most of their actions seem more apocryphal than believable. How many times have you seen a movie cop snarl about how the “Feds” are messing up his case or how roughing-up a suspect is the only way to obtain information? This is probably due to the fact that the people who write this tripe have nothing to base their stories on but other cop movies. The Wire side-steps this creative cannibalism by going directly to the source and showing an insider’s view of police work.

I can probably count on one hand and still use chop sticks with the number of movies in which the criminal is actually arrested at the end instead of mowed down in a hail of indignant bullets. In The Wire, it’s all about putting the criminals in jail. In season 3 you feel the pain the police feel when they learn that one of their major suspects has been murdered just as they were about to indict him.

It's about Oil

“Mr. Bush prattles on about spreading democracy and freedom, but history will actually remember the Bush years as the moment when petro-authoritarians—not freedom and democracy—spread like a wildfire and he did nothing serious to stop it.”

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times September 27, 2006

An avalanche of state-sponsored panic followed 9/11, but one of my favorite pieces of propaganda was when the Bush administration launched a campaign to link drug use with terrorism. I forget the details but the commercials basically told pot smokers that although they might think that their illegal activity harms no one, drug cartels profiting from marijuana sales support terrorist networks. I forgive you if the whole affair was too silly for you to remember. There was a small counter-campaign that wasn’t financed by the government that suggested that driving gas-guzzling vehicles contributed to terror by financing totalitarian oil-exporting regimes. This counter-demonstration was immediately shouted down by conservatives as being shrill, irresponsible, and somehow disrespectful of the victims of 9/11 (that was a very convenient criticism of any views they found to be inconvenient).

Just about every time he has a microphone within shouting distance Mr. Bush reminds us that the terrorists attacked us because they hate our freedoms when their true reasons were plainly articulated: They opposed U.S. troops on Saudi soil. I don’t think that U.S. troops should be anywhere in the Middle East and certainly not Saudi Arabia. I also don’t think that we should be buying oil from what is one of the world’s most despicable regimes, a regime in which 50% of the populace (women) are basically political prisoners.

I am saying nothing new when I say that Mr. Bush has not asked the American people to make a single sacrifice in our war on terror. We have an army of economic conscripts that we call volunteers and the rest of us sit back and try to ignore the chaos in Iraq by switching the channel to the fantasy world of American Idol or Fox News. We haven’t been asked to so much as cut out one trip to the mall each month as a means of lessening our dependence on the oil we buy from Middle East countries with truly horrible records on human rights—although they are ostensibly our allies while the neo-con crowd tells us that former allies—like France—are now our enemies.

The Bush administration likens the attack of 9/11 to a modern day Yarmuk (636 A.D.), the first major battle between Islam and the Christian west. If that is true—and I don’t believe that it is—then why do we have a virtual pipeline of money flowing from our country into the coffers of our enemies, a pipeline built on our dependence on their oil? Our national policy should be to disarm our enemy, not fill their Swiss bank accounts because we are too stupid to come up with a sane energy policy.

In our battle against energy dependency our president has not even asked for volunteers. This is a war we have been losing for decades and we have yet to admit that we are in the fight. Fuel efficiency ratings of cars sold in America have worsened in the last 15 years as people climbed aboard the sport utility vehicle bandwagon. Investment in public transportation infrastructure has also dwindled. Government funding for Amtrak, the United States’ passenger train service, has always been stingy while airlines received a whopping $15 billion bailout in the wake of 9/11. America’s rail service has been criticized by conservatives for not being self-sufficient while no one expects our highway system to carry its own weight. This is at a time when European countries are falling over themselves to build a vast system of high-speed rail (300 kph).

I have heard that what America needs is a sort of Manhattan Project to bring us into energy self-sufficiency. I think that what is needed is a lot more low-tech. Almost all of the technology we need to become less dependent on Middle East oil already exists. We have cars that get 60-70 mpg and trains that go 300 kph. The bicycle is perhaps the best personal transportation device ever invented. What America needs is not a Manhattan Project but more of an old-fashion fire bucket brigade. We simply need to embrace a lifestyle that will lead us away from the slavery of foreign oil dependence.

Conservatives have a long history of opposing higher fuel efficiency requirements for automobiles. Right-wing propaganda mills like the Heritage Foundation and National Review have argued for years that higher CAFÉ standards don’t lower gasoline consumption and that smaller, more fuel efficient cars are unsafe. Their arguments are specious, if not ridiculous and now we find ourselves some 33 years after the first Arab oil embargo more vulnerable than ever to the whims and instability of our Middle East suppliers. Their only idea to free us from foreign oil is to allow more domestic production in environmentally fragile areas. Even in their best-case scenarios the added production in these areas would do little to meet our energy needs.

Republicans maintain that they represent the party most committed to protecting Americans yet they seem unwilling and unable to reduce our dependence on imported oil which represents the greatest risk to this country. With transportation using 28% of fuel consumption in America it is obvious that higher automobile fuel efficiency would be a good place to start if energy independence is our goal. The fact that energy self-sufficiency isn’t even anything we talk about with any sense of seriousness or urgency demonstrates the absence of any political leadership in America.

Instead of leadership we are treated to the outrage du jour by conservatives: terrorism, gay marriage, abortion, partial-birth abortion, terrorism, illegal immigrants, and terrorism. We are only told what we want to hear. Entire careers are made in politics by those who are best able to figure out what we, the public, will find agreeable and comfortable instead of determining what course we should follow and then implementing a strategy to get us there. It’s like keeping a child on a steady diet of candy because it won’t eat the things it should.

I happen to believe that Americans are practically dying to be asked to do something substantial to make our country better. I think Americans would be willing to make considerable sacrifices if it meant building a stronger future for themselves and their children. If only we could elect politicians with the courage to ask us to make these sacrifices.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Guilty Pleasures and Bad Habits

Bad habits and the American pastime go together like nothing else. I was about to say that the best thing about my stay in Chicago is the fact that I can smoke cigars while I watch a baseball game on TV at the local smoke shop. I hold off on that statement because that wouldn’t be fair to all of the friends and family I have here (but they are all at work or school as I sit here and smoke, watch the Yankees and the Tigers battle it out in game two of their series, and type out this essay).

Seattle has all but outlawed smoking. Not only are you allowed to smoke indoors here, but Chicago also doesn’t have an enormous tax on tobacco products as they do in Seattle. It’s pretty easy to have willpower when cigars are horribly expensive and there is no place to smoke them when you do come up with the money to buy them. The only thing that I have to worry about here is cancer; that can wait until after the World Series.

This place doesn’t serve alcohol so I have been reeled in as far as one of my bad habits is concerned, but it’s 2:30 in the afternoon and I rarely have a drink this early—even during the playoffs. There is another game on later this evening so it isn’t as if all hope is lost as far as having a cocktail today. Maybe by the end of the day I can hit all of my bad habit bases. You can call it hitting for the cycle of vices.

If I could go back in time I would put on a suit and hat and go to a baseball game when they allowed fans to smoke cigars at the ballpark. I’m sure that there are better uses for a time machine, but I can’t think of one now as I puff on a wonderful La Gloria Cubana R Series #6 and stare at the big screen television as Detroit tries to hang on to a 4-3 lead in the 8th inning.

Almost as good as this cigar is seeing Alex Rodriguez, a former Mariner and Yankee sell-out, strike out repeatedly in this game. With the Mariners sitting out the playoffs yet again, I can at least take pleasure in rooting against the Yankees, no matter who they are playing—I don’t care if it’s the Al Qaeda all stars. I think that being an anti-Yankee fan is one of my good habits.

My cigar lasted long enough to see the Tigers hang on to their 4-3 lead and tie the series against the Yankees at 1-1. Tied up in front of the cigar shop was my brother’s dog, a very patient German Shepard. I had a short walk home, dinner to cook, and another baseball game to watch.