Monday, October 15, 2012
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Left, Right, and Wrong
Every election is purported to be an opportunity to change the direction of the country, to finally get on a real path to prosperity. But recent history reveals a frustrating pattern: The Dems win, they spend more and solve little, so the pendulum swings, the GOP wins, and they spend more and solve little, so the cycle repeats. Worse, both sides sometimes don't even TRY to fix things, they simply promote their own ambitions and endeavor to block the opponent's agenda. (If my daughter's fourth-grade class had a "mock congress" that behaved the way our elected politicians do, the teacher would intervene and say, "You seem to have misunderstood the assignment. I didn't ask you to be petulant divas, I asked you to work together to find a compromise.")
But those are the key terms of our public discourse. Politics is an increasingly perverse game of revenue enhancement, with politicians arguing about gay marriage and the definition of rape while the nation buckles under $16 trillion debt. Watching the two parties is like watching a couple argue over what color to paint the kitchen while the foreclosure notice is sitting unopened in their mail pile. We have allowed our politicians to become the equivalent of reality TV stars, and in too many cases, their goal is nothing more than securing a role in next season's show. I'm exhausted even being a witness to this spectacle, let alone a participant.
Walt Whitman, speaking as America in Song of Myself, said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" America once celebrated itself as a melting pot, but more and more, people seem to seek homogeny. Look at Ron Paul's journey to Tampa and the RNC. Convention officials did everything they could to shut out Paul's supporters, to silence their voices. This isn't even partisan politics — they're all Republicans, yet factions in the party made tremendous effort to silence other factions of the party. The irony of using decidedly un-democratic tactics as a fulcrum to hoist your candidate for a democratic election is so bald-faced that it should have been lambasted by every person at that convention, and in America. Are we to believe that silencing dissenting voices is somehow fighting the good fight? Would we praise our children if this is how they managed to get ahead in school?
Our fellow citizens are not our opponents. They are not the enemy. We are all Americans, and shame on us for allowing the conversation to escalate to where we self-righteously pass judgment on another person's patriotism. My latest favorite is posting an image of the US flag and saying "I'm not embarrassed to post this. Are you?" So you define patriotism by your own standard, then anyone who doesn't meet your standard is a sub-par American? If I don't do what you do, it's presumed I'm embarrassed?
I'll trump the flag-photo posters and remind us all of what it says in the Pledge of Allegiance: "One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."* Indivisible? Are we collectively fulfilling this pledge when we declare liberals to be idiots (because all liberals are the same, just like "women" and "Latinos" and "gays" are completely homogenous demographics ) and call conservatives suckers (because anyone who doesn't come to the same conclusions that we do is obviously a pawn to some diabolical machine?)
I believe that everyone wants to see our nation thrive, and that everyone is genuine in their expression. I applaud those who are passionate about their views and care about the future of our nation, but many have let that passion cloud their perception. If we encounter data that underscores our beliefs, it is valuable information; if it contradicts our beliefs, the data is deceptive. If a candidate espouses our values, we can forgive them for failings; if not, everything they do is deemed suspect. It calls to mind the proverb, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" — which serves better as a proverb than a platform.
It is frustrating that the government has managed to establish itself as the only way to get things done, yet partisan bickering makes it nearly impossible to get things done. It's frustrating that the government has its hands in absolutely everything — as a friend who emigrated from Laos once told me, "America talks a lot about freedom, but you aren't free at all. If you want to get married, you need the government to make it legal; if you want to build a fence around your yard, you need the city's approval; if you even want to have a yard sale to sell your old things, you have to get a permit." We give a lot of lip service to America's freedom while our elected officials overtly or unconsciously work to limit those freedoms every day. (Of course, it's okay to limit freedoms on things we don't care about — just don't touch the things that matter to us personally.)
I am not against the the idea of the federal government: the armed forces and the interstate highway systems alone make me willing to support the concept. But we have accepted the ridiculous state of partisan politics as par for the course, and not enough people are calling it out as such. I expect better of us as citizens, and I believe we should expect more of our politicians. We should demand more from them.
But there's the catch-22: the problem isn't the government, it's us. We have become increasingly selfish, intolerant, even belligerent, and anyone who benefits from discord (including political parties and political action committees and the media) takes advantage of that. We have become a nation divided, and for that, we blame the opposition, not ourselves. We sing the praises of America's forefathers, but we don't want to act with the strength and character and cooperation that defined them.
I have hope for America (and I'm not embarrassed to say it), but I have genuine concern that this partisan, money-fueled government is merely a reflection of a national partisan mindset. We tolerate politicians buying votes by promising government projects, we elect and re-elect candidates whose lack of understanding of the issues they oversee is demonstrated by their public statements. We have accepted that a person can win an election not on the merits of their own ideas, but because there were enough people willing to vote against their opponent.
Margaret Thatcher said, "Power is like being a lady... if you have to tell people you are, you aren't." That's analogous to my idea of America as a great nation: it's not enough to say America is great — we have to behave with greatness. We have to stop reveling in the petty, disruptive infighting that permeates our national discourse and focus on solutions that demonstrate the legendary spirit that has defined our greatness for the last 240 years. I don't believe those solutions will come from so-called leaders who promise to steadfastly promote a particular agenda when they get to Congress. "I will not compromise" shouldn't be seen as a strength, it should be questioned as a failing of one's flexibility.
Ever heard the phrase, "You're only as good as your last game"? It means that no matter what you're history, your reputation depends on what you do today. America has a rich and storied history, one that warrants a claim to greatness. But we can't simply stand on the shoulders of giants — we need to continue to be great. And being great as a nation requires being great as individuals, committed to the ideas and ideals upon which this nation was founded.
Let's start with one word: Indivisible.
Think we can do that?
* quoting the original pledge, as "under god" was added 62 years after it was written and I'd rather talk about us than god for the moment
Monday, June 25, 2012
The Lyrical Offenses of "Hey Jealousy"
My friend Ben, who I like and admire, recently attempted to sever our friendship by admitting to having fond memories of The Gin Blossoms. This is hard for me to accept because the band was borne from a tainted era of generic American "alternative" bands. If you lived through so-called modern rock radio in the 90s, you know the crop of crap I'm talking about — it was an endless potpourri of upbeat innocuousness sung by that annoying prick in your high school math class. The bands were generally interchangeable: you could slip a Dada disc into your friend's Better Than Ezra case and the subterfuge would likely never be discovered; if someone went to see a Marcy's Playground show and Blind Melon took the stage instead, would they be disappointed? Would they even notice? Ditto for The Gin Blossoms. Even the band's own mothers sometimes mistook them for Dishwalla.
Don't get me wrong, I will grant that "Hey Jealousy" is undeniably, even unmercifully catchy. (See the video here.) But if we measure quality by the ability to create an earworm that burrows into the listener's skull and leave them so crippled that they frantically seek out mattress-store jingles as a means of relief, then roll over Beethoven, because Katy Perry has some news to deliver. Ben's mention of the band reanimated that insidious melodic virus in my head, and after de-friending him on social media (including LinkedIn, because I could never work with someone who might say, "Hey, know what will make this workday go faster? New Miserable Experience!") I could feel old questions rising up within me, questions that confront me every time I listen to "Hey Jealousy":
- Is Jealousy a person? The syntax of the lyrics makes it seem so, but perhaps he's speaking of an emotional abstract, sort of in a Chuck Palahniuk-esque "I am Jack's wanking nostalgia" sort of way. Though neither way makes much sense, so this is more of a rhetorical question.
- Have these guys ever had the cops chase them around? Let's be honest, this band seems a bit wussy, what with the well-washed shoulder-length hair that makes them all look like the actors listed as "Rock Band Members 1-5" in a Disney movie. And frankly, while the video features a vintage 60s Ford or some other retro-approved gas-guzzler, this band is pure Toyota Corolla, and cops don't chase Corollas — cops catch Corollas. Ten-to-one says that if The Gin Blossoms were pulled over by the police, at least one of them would say, "Shit, my dad's gonna freak. I'm still on his insurance!"
- Considering the vacuousness of the lyrics, couldn't you have written a third verse rather than repeating the first? Before you assert that many songs repeat verses, here's how the repeated-verse device usually works: The first verse seems to mean one thing; the second verse adds a twist; the first verse is then repeated, but has a different meaning because of the new information. For example:
Verse 1: I hate going to Jenny's house.See what happened there? Verse 3 is a repeat, but it's more poignant because of what you learned elsewhere in the song. That doesn't happen in Hey Jealousy. Instead, a drunkard tells you he's in no shape for driving, and then drunkenly says it again 90 seconds later because he apparently doesn't remember saying it.
Verse 2: I have always ached for Jenny, but she likes girls. Like, like-likes.
Verse 3: I hate going to Jenny's house.
- What the hell is a Gin Blossom, anyway? Is that some Southwest cactus thing, or is it like Concrete Blonde, a juxtaposition of hard and soft words? Watching the video, I doubt these guys drink a whole lot of gin. Though Wine Cooler Blossoms is admittedly long.
- Does the singer really think he's making a plausible case for regaining Jealousy's affections? A quick examination of a few particular lines reveals some serious chinks in the singer's Ring-Ding wrapper armor:
- "If I hadn't blown the whole thing years ago, I might not be alone" — ahhh, so sweet. Rather than emphasizing your previous inability to recognize someone's value, just tell them you don't want to be alone. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to be a convenient port in the storm?
- "All I really want is to be with you, feeling like I matter too" — Listen pal, time to brush up on Wooing 101: Make the other person feel special; telling them YOU want to feel special makes you seem like a high-maintenance douche.
- "You can trust me not to think, and not to sleep around" — Wow, you are setting the bar so high. How could a person ever live up to such a chivalric declaration?
- "If you don't expect too much from me, you might not be let down" — This lazy pronouncement of slackerdom would be awful even without the caveat, but note that he says "you MIGHT not be let down." So even if you DON'T expect too much (and let's be honest, Romeo, no one is by this point in the song) this jackass STILL might not live up to those low expectations. Gosh, what a prize!
I know The Gin Blossoms aren't the only chumps who parleyed a catchy riff into a few years of steady blasting from frat house windows; I know that the canon of banal pop lyrics is vast enough that it's hard to single out one band as special; I know that many of America's youth have succumbed to the notion that growing one's hair out is a sure-fire remedy for blue balls. The Gin Blossoms didn't invent any of that — but they are the essence of that, the overlapping center of the Venn diagram of laughable rock clichés, and I'd wash my hands of them forever if I could just get that goddam song out of my head.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Frankly, it is nothing short of amazing — and I'm happy. Science fiction Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." That's how I feel about Pandora. My daughter thinks that Pandora is the norm, that immediate access to a personalized music stream is how you listen to music; but I know better — because I have known a reality other than this one.
Monday, June 4, 2012
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Beauty Consultant For Hire
I want to change careers. It would be a big shift, but I believe I will make a fantastic beauty consultant. Not like the animated mannequins at high-end department stores who prey on people's insecurities by demonstrating how they can mask miniscule "flaws" in the interest of so-called self-improvement, and certainly not like the plastic surgeons who multiply that make-up counter pitch to exponentially more permanent and costly extremes. No, my services will be much simpler: For the smallest possible fee that would still allow me to feed my family, I would meet with people professionally and point out every beautiful thing about them.
A career built on being complimentary? Don't be too quick to dismiss it, because there are two critical factors that make this a plausible business model:
First, I honestly think most people are beautiful. This doesn't mean they fit some preconceived template for attractiveness like the stringent guidelines employed by the advertising industry — it means they're beautiful in their own right, on their own terms. For me, it's as simple as this: When you see a person, imagine what the person who loves them loves most about them. Maybe it's the warmth in a woman's eyes or the readiness of a man's smile, the breadth of their shoulders or the grace of their gait, the confidence in their posture or the effervescence of their laugh. I don't think anyone is beautiful in exactly the same way someone else is beautiful, but that doesn't mean they aren't every bit as beautiful as the next person, and the next.
Second, so many people seem painfully self-aware of their supposed flaws. You can see it in the way they apply their make-up or use clothing as a disguise, how they cut their hair to cover their face or keep their smile tight to hide what's behind it. Maybe some of what I see is my imagination, but I recognize the ruses - I've done the same things myself, because I consider my best features to be between my ears, not on my face. I know the vulnerability one feels when a smile is met with a deliberate glance away, when we invest more effort than we should into aspiring to what only feels like adequacy, let alone excellence. In short, I know what it means to be human. And I'm smart enough to realize that being human is enough.
I would be amazing at the job, primarily because I would approach it with complete abandon. I would never lie to my clients, because I wouldn't have to — I would simply accentuate the positives that people too often deny in themselves. The real beauty, not the blueprint imposed by inaptly-named "beauty magazines."
The goal is not to convince people that they are closer than they think to some fictional ideal they have set in their sights. Pursuing an external definition of attractiveness is the opposite of what I want to achieve. My aim is to expose that fiction as a fraud, to reveal to them what is obvious to me: they are already beautiful, and any time spent worrying otherwise is time wasted. I don't presume it will be an easy conversion, but I believe I have the facts on my side.
While I really do believe that almost everyone is beautiful, there are still ways that people make themselves unattractive. Arrogance is a genuinely ugly trait, and no amount of make-up can cover it up; ditto on hatred, because drawing ugly lines in your heart also creates ugly lines on your face. (I know no one who finds scowl lines enticing.) But as for the rest of the species, I use the food analogy: there are absolutely no similarities between pizza and apples and ice cream, and I appreciate every one of them. I don't wish they were more like each other — I celebrate how different they all are. People have big noses and small noses, perfect teeth and crooked teeth, balding heads and hairy arms and curvaceous thighs and flat chests and furrowed brows and flirty smiles, and there's something genuinely compelling in every feature if you look at what's there, not what's missing. To hell with anyone who tells you otherwise — you (yes you, dear reader) are genuinely beautiful, and I'm not just offering platitudes. You really are, so-called flaws and all.
(Wait, this business model isn't going to work if I keep giving this away.)