Sunday, March 30, 2008

Talking About Race

Lately the issue of race relations in America has been popping up all over the national dialog like mushrooms after a fresh rain. The last time we've had such a concentrated discussion of race was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when a startled world saw a sea of broken, abandoned black faces on their televisions. This was a side of our country that few - even over here - knew existed.

In the middle of last month, Barack Obama delivered an incredible speech that struck a chord with many Americans: moving away from the fiery rhetoric that has defined the public lives of many prominent black politicians of the previous generation, Obama acknowledged that the problem of racism was real, but also that it went both ways. He articulated a "post-race" society, in which the issue of skin color is made ever more invisible, while also speaking out against turning the blind eye to endemic problems in a mad, idealistic race towards Utopia. According to the chattering classes (and a viewpoint I happen to share), Obama's speech will be remembered as a great moment in the American race discussion.

No doubt our readers have seen the speech and have been following the issue of race as it makes its appearances across the American cultural landscape. I don't want to use this post to rehash all the things that have been said in the media over the last two weeks. Rather, I want to write about a recent incident in my own life that underscores many of the points Obama made.

One of my big projects right now at work is the managing editorship of a large collection of classical, folk, and world traditional tunes arranged for string orchestra. It is targeted at young students (beginner - 2nd/3rd year), so will be used primarily at the elementary and middle school levels. It's a really innovative concept and an exciting project to be working on.

One of my tasks is to compose brief blurbs that provide historical and cultural context of the music for the students. The composers sometimes give me their own texts with specific information they want me to mention in the notes; for example, the fact that Haydn was warmly referred to as "Papa" by his orchestra at the Esterhazy court. I tweak these, add my own stuff, and make them publish-worthy.

One of the songs in the collection comes from the tradition of 19th century minstrel shows. Minstrelsy was a mid-19th century popular musical theater form that involved white actors putting on blackface paint and imitating black people onstage. Characters were usually of a stock variety, including Jim Crow, Gumbo Chaffs, and Tambo; and true to their stock personalities, they acted in a manner of stereotyped exaggeration of how 19th century whites viewed their black peers. 150 years before Eminem, whites were trying to "act black" onstage. For a more complete description of this problematic piece of American music/cultural history, see the Wiki article in the link.

In and of itself, publishing a minstrel tune isn't a problem at all: many classic tunes in the American folk songbook had their origins in minstrelsy ("Dixie," "Oh Susanna!," and "Camptown Races" for instance). It was also a very influential movement, leading to vaudeville and the modern American musical theater. Indeed, no story of American music is complete without discussing minstrel shows. However, presenting a minstrel song in a collection aimed at fairly young kids presents challenges in terms of how to properly contextualize it. In the notes prepared by the arranger, I was surprised to read not one mention of the racial element of minstrelsy. Focusing entirely on the music, race seemed to be erased from the picture.

I struggled with this for a few days before consulting my senior editor, who agreed that we should definitely rewrite the blurb to provide accurate cultural context for the movement. Leaving out the issue of race almost struck me as a deliberate whitewashing of history. It pained me imagining a hypothetical black student (or any student for that matter) getting curious about the tune and typing "minstrel show" into Google, only to be confronted with demeaning images of grinning, dancing Jim Crows. If provided with at least some warning that this was a complicated and troubling aspect of American music, the student would be able to sort out the issue on his/her own and with help from teachers and parents; however, not mentioning race at all in the little introductory essay seemed to be doing this hypothetical student a big disfavor. Furthermore, it would open up a potential legal/PR liability for the company. I decided to talk about race.

However, when asked, the arranger strongly disagreed, arguing that talking about race in the context of student music books isn't appropriate. Certainly, this view has merit: students are using these books to learn how to play music, not to be given a lecture on the darker aspects of American history. I could also understand that, coming from an overwhelmingly white area, the arranger honestly didn't consider race to be a huge problem: the friction brought about by racial diversity (no stranger to residents of New York, Johannesburg, or Miami) wouldn't be felt as acutely in areas with little diversity. Nevertheless, it is truly impossible to even reference minstrelsy without referencing America's "original sin" of racism. I rewrote the essay with a brief, non-polemical mention of race, and the issue seems to have been dropped.

I bring this little story to our blog pages because I think it underscores a significant split in the way many Americans view the problem of race, a split that was perspicaciously observed by Obama in his speech. On the one hand, you have people who are fatigued by carrying the weight of history on their backs and are so eager to turn the page that they don't even want to talk about race. To many people, denying race a place at the dinnertable of American conversation denies it power, neuters it - not talking about racial problems quells the selfsame problem. On the other hand, you have individuals who carry the weight of history in a different way - by being vociferous about it. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are fine representatives of this; so too are many university undergrads straight out of their sociology courses with a bone to pick with society. To this camp, talking endlessly about race is the only way to solve deep divisions, even though this sort of talk alienates many from the healing process. It's a bit like Krushchev banging his shoe on the table at the UN - who wants to negotiate with someone who has clearly already made up his mind?

This is partly what makes Barack Obama such an exciting candidate. Many critics (read: Clinton) claim that Obama is all words, just a lot of feel-good air; but this speech, and his whole political approach and persona in general, indicate that he truly wants to find a middle way between silence on the one hand and righteous anger on the other. We are in a transitional period for race in this country: not yet at our goal of the post-race promise land where we don't need to even dignify race with conversation, we are also well beyond Black Panthers, race riots, and segregation. Obama recognizes the problem of race and addresses it with all the parties at the table, minus the anger and guilt that have defined so much racial politics in the past. He has taken on an enlightened challenge, and it's time that America accepts this challenge.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Culture is Not Your Friend: Part II

Over time, culture gradually evolves, but some types of cultural changes in modern times involve sudden jumps forward due to the invention and implementation of new technologies. New technological advances make up a huge part of the societal changes that affect our everyday lives, and sometimes these changes take place faster than people can adapt to them. For instance, the personal computer and how it has facilitated working in cubicles has transformed modern-day life, some would say to the detriment of people’s physical and social well being. While culture is constantly evolving, the way we experience culture is also constantly evolving. In modern times, the way we experience culture is vastly different than it was even twenty years ago because of the saturation of the media through the internet, mobile phones, and satellite TV and radio, and also because the way mass media is presented has adapted in response to these new formats. Mass media, and the news media in particular, are crucial parts of our culture today not just because they constitute much of our culture, but because they shape the way we view and interpret much of the other elements of our culture. As our social networks, job connections, and sources of consumer goods rarify in an ever-expanding world, we are becoming increasingly reliant on technology to keep us connected. In addition, our increasing reliance on technology and specifically home electronics has increased our exposure to mass media. Therefore, it is crucial to discuss the impact that this messenger of culture has on our lives, and how it filters our awareness of the world.

In modern times more than ever, the news is entertainment too. It can have just as much spin as a Dean Koontz novel or MTV. People don’t spend time listening to things they don’t find stimulating, and we have witnessed how the presentation of the news has gradually become more and more chopped up, sped up, and dramatized in the past two decades or so. People certainly might be hyped-up after watching some CNN or Fox News. The problem is that the stories are so focused on life and death disasters and acts of extreme violence that people are left feeling very afraid of the outside world. In addition, they are also left feeling confused because this approach to presenting the news does nothing to improve people’s understanding of the specifics of the big, complex issues in the world today.

The current approach of news as entertainer often does not help illuminate much of the truth, or even help clarify the real problems at hand. The classic methodology of presenting both sides of a story does not mean the middle ground is correct, either. The statement that “there are two sides to every story” is doubly wrong. There is really just one reality, but there are an infinite number of sides to it, depending on each person’s own judgment and history. Everyone’s viewpoint may count for something, but it doesn’t mean that they are all correct. Yet, this way of presenting the news can leave people with the impression that the middle position must be correct, or even that something is true because most people think so. This is the case more so nowadays, when there is often little or no follow up on the effects of events once they’re finalized because often the news media feels it is more important to move on to the next big crisis to grab everyone’s attention. There is a real danger in this approach as well. If people are told such things as “sixty percent of Americans think it was the right decision to go to war in Iraq”, they can be left with the impression that it was the right decision, after all. Regarding complex issues like treaties, or agreements like NAFTA, the tiny amount of post-analysis on the news doesn’t allow people to learn what is actually good or bad about NAFTA, and what the net result has been. Only now, during the election cycle has it even really been bought up.

Instead of this type of approach, the news media should better fill the role that they really play- that of an educator. Particularly after most people finish school and start working full-time jobs, the news media is the primary way that people get information about the world. For better or worse, it forms a major part of what people base their decisions and views about the world on. Therefore, maybe the news media should provide more to the public in the way of analysis and opinion from the experts in the particular field being discussed instead of many thirty second on-the-scene interviews and tedious personal interest stories. For instance, if the political crisis in Kenya is being reported, bring in someone who has spent time there and knows a great deal about the history and politics of the region to talk about the situation. Perhaps spending some time on the history of the country would give people a real understanding of why these different ethnic groups are fighting, besides just because of a disputed election.

To be sure, experts bring biases like everyone else. But, considering that the limited time on the news (or space, regarding newspapers and magazines), can be the biggest enemy in capturing the truth about an issue, an expert can bring a breadth of knowledge and can convey what is accepted as truth by most people in the field who have given the matter serious thought. Because an expert might know as much about an issue as twenty lay people, this approach might be one of the best possible ways to condense information enough to present a well-rounded view in a short period of time. Yet, while there are a few shows that do consistently bring in experts, it continues to be quite rare, in general, for the news media to reach out to academics to get an idea of what is happening in the field.

While the view of news media as educator leaves way for bias, it can be argued that there is no such thing as unbiased news. Furthermore, sometimes biased news presented after careful analysis and editing is much more informative than the watered-down, both-sides-equal approach. Of course, who is picked as an “expert” is also subjective and leaves open the possibility of misrepresentation. However, picking well-respected university professors is often a good bet, since they are less prone to have specific financial interests in the issue, and because they are accredited experts. Even if a report by an expert happens to be strongly biased, at least it would provide the audience with solid ground to either agree or disagree with the expressed opinions, instead of leaving them thinking they got the full, unadulterated truth, when really the newscast was always limited to what the reporters could cover, what the editors liked, and what the networks thought would be the most entertaining.

Despite the value that more in-depth coverage could have on the American psyche, we may not be able to do much about how the news is presented to us. However, one big thing that we always have control over is what media we pay attention to. Regardless of how big and mainstream some aspects of culture may become, we are the consumers, which actually gives us the most power. Therefore, perhaps consuming less and being more careful about what we spend our precious time listening to and watching would do us all some good. While there is a tremendous variety of news and opinions out there, trying to pay attention to too many of them can leave people overwhelmed, disoriented, and stressed-out, like all too many Americans.

Variety is a great thing. Yet, the tremendous variety that we have nowadays in everything from the kinds of shampoo we buy to where we go to college can be overwhelming. There are dozens and dozens of television and radio stations broadcasting news, at least that many major magazines, hundreds of newspapers, and maybe tens of thousands of websites, a great many of which we can check on a daily basis. It is wonderful to be able to consult a few different sources to get a more balanced view of events, but this magnitude of media exposure is surely too much for anyone to handle. Even monitoring five or ten different media sources on a regular basis can be very distracting, and has the potential to cause profound disturbances in our everyday lives. However, there is a feeling in our society that the more information we consume, the more we know about the world and the more educated we will be. This assumes, though that each source we watch or read is actually novel (and doesn’t overlap with the others), and that it is true and accurate. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

The more information there is floating around on the web and beamed over the airwaves, the more misinformation there will also be. Some information presented is not really false, but is so limited, misleading, or over-dramatized that its educational value is extremely marginal. If someone just wants to be entertained, then certainly there is no harm in watching television or visiting a fun website to unwind. The harm comes because so many sources claim to be real and legitimate when they are not, and people get mislead because it is often hard to tell the difference in a world where the boundaries between advertisements and the news, between “reality” TV and TV about reality, and between legitimate and spurious websites are blurred. The celebrity gossip magazines, “fact”-laden advertising, and reality TV add to this grayish zone. Words such as “real”, “all-natural”, and “certified” are so ubiquitous today that they start to lose their meaning.

One approach is that a little ignorance may not be such a bad thing in an environment so swamped with information that people feel stressed out and overwhelmed. Indeed, some psychological studies on consumers suggest that the more variety of different products they are exposed to, the more stressed and restricted they feel, instead of feeling more happy and free. It may be that after a certain point, more variety just complicates and expands the already burdensome number of choices that constantly need to be made in everyday life. So, it might be advantageous to relax and be at peace with the fact that we cannot keep up with all of the new things being pushed upon us, so it is ok to be ignorant of a great deal of the media and culture we could access. Ignoring most media is not perpetuating ignorance, but quite the opposite because it can help filter out a lot of drama and misinformation, and because it allows people to try to really understand in depth the issues that matter most to them. It could even be beneficial to our societal health to do so by allowing people to stay focused on the local relationships that often get neglected when people are too busy. While the news may offer novelty and variety, only local connections and relationships can provide true comfort, satisfaction, and friendship.

Monday, March 24, 2008

I'd Like Some Onion Rings With a Side of Weed

As some of you know, I work as an English teacher in the Miami-Dade public school system. Since I noticed that there are not many blog posts that discuss the education system or what goes on in the classroom, I thought that I might be able to add a little mirth to this huge part of American life.

In my high school English class I usually start the day off with a journal topic. Some of these journal topics allow me to glimpse a little piece of what's going on in the collective youth psyche. Occasionally, I will be posting my students' responses to these journal topics.

This first entry was written by an average girl in the eleventh grade. The journal entry is posted here without any editing on my part:

"Ok, so I work at Burger King and the truth is that it's a pretty cool job. But the funniest thing is that everybody there, even the managers, are drugies. People known as customers come by drive-thru and order cheap, simple meals. But when they come by the window, they don't just pick up food, they also pick up their weed. And it's hilarious because all the managers and the owners know that the employees sell weed and other drugs at there job."

Talk about having it your way.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Culture is Not Your Friend: Part I

It seems to be an accepted fact today that culture and all its parts are to be cherished like a tender infant. Culture, and indeed, the delightful, yet cumbersome idea of multiculturalism is burned into our brains, and has become something of a philosophy. Culture is the way we talk. Culture is the turban on the head of a Hindu. Culture is the Latin music being played at a bar. Culture is the turkey with dressing we eat on Thanksgiving, and culture is part of the sense of justice and individual rights that we all share. Make any disparaging comments about culture, and brace yourself for attacks from all sides. The problem is that culture is not just these things, but a whole lot more. Culture is Levis 501’s. Culture is Hollywood action films. Culture is our obsession with gigantic SUVs. And culture is also our sense of entitlement that we should follow our dreams and be anything we want, even if it means living thousands of miles from our families and sacrificing meaningful relationships for the pursuit of money. To really be at peace with culture, you have to take the bad with the good. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to change it.

Every culture has its virtues, and every culture has its more pathological elements. America is no exception. We do have a great country, but it’s interesting that we alone seem to have been taught from a very young age that each of us is a truly special and unique person, and that we live in the greatest country in the world. These very beliefs instill both passion and danger, good and bad. The catch is that if we, as a society, are going to grow and mature to be our own, truly unique individuals, we will have to break a bit from certain parts of our own culture. While the American way of life really does offer many advantages, it is easy to get consumed by the monetary elements. This age of information affords us more opportunities for communication than in any time in human history, but it also presents us with many new challenges. Our culture, or pop-culture at least, is constantly in our homes and in our ears. Every electronic gizmo, in addition to being great entertainment that we all enjoy, is in a darker sense another conduit for some anonymous person or company to compete with your loved ones for your valuable attention.

A great deal of the “culture” we’re exposed to comes from so far away and from so high up in the business hierarchy that it is not really culture at all in the sense that it is not created organically through the interactions of many people. In the original sense of the word, and how most people continue to think of it today, culture is something that emerges from a society of people thinking and acting together in certain ways that creates a character all its own. Culture in this context is something generated at the local level by people sharing and expressing themselves and making contributions to a community until the ideas and habits that are most valued spread outward to surrounding communities and grow “up” the social hierarchy. Anything from new recipes to new musical styles can come about from this pattern. This is very different however, from the “top-down” imposition of new styles and behaviors from designers, executives, editors, and pop icons to the general population. For instance, some bands are not started by guys jamming in a garage, trying to find some way to express themselves, but are hand-picked by a few people in the music industry and handed songs to fill the niche that those select few people think needs to be filled. With regard to food, the vast majority of the packaged food available to consumers on the shelves in supermarkets are produced by Nestle, Coca-Cola, and Kraft- which by the way, was acquired by Phillip Morris some years ago (which is now known as the Altria Group), which merged Kraft with General Foods and Nabisco, which were giants in their own right at the time. It is now the case that many new foods products and dishes don’t start in the kitchen, but start in the factory. Even a large amount of the produce people buy is genetically modified (even though these fruits and vegetables are not required to be labeled as such by law, and thus hardly ever are), and are thereby tailored not just to your needs, but to the companies’ needs of efficiency and volume.

On a specific level, we can do small things such as demand that our food be labeled if it is genetically modified. But, on a larger and even simpler level, we can resist feeding this beast and empower ourselves as consumers by actually buying as little as possible, with as little packaging as possible, with as little advertising as possible. If a product is very heavily advertised and packaged, where do you think much of the company’s money is going? It’s certainly not towards improving the quality of the product. Changing our buying habits can benefit not only our health and our checkbooks, but even our communities and our society if enough people get motivated enough to change their habits. One problem with the mass production of everything from TVs to food is that most of our money goes to companies in places that are so far away and so removed from our lives that they don’t mean anything personal to us. Of course, mass production brings prices down. So, shopping for quality will cost more, but it’s worth considering the benefits. It’s a simple decision that consumers make dozens of times a day. The idea of quantity over quality really has taken control of the American Psyche, and it can be hard for many people to resist. However, buying less stuff, and particularly less name-brand stuff allows people to buy higher quality products for the same amount of money. It should be noted that this isn’t meant to be a complete anti-corporate rant. It’s not that the corporations are evil because they’re rich and powerful; it’s that we compromise a great deal of our choice in which products we consume (and how much of them we consume) when we buy from someone or something that wouldn’t know if we died tomorrow.

Perhaps the biggest issue here (literally) though is the over-consumption that is so pervasive today. And, which has been pushed on the consumer from high up consistently for the past several decades at least. This is something that people have heard before, but it continues to get worse and worse. And, this really is something that is forced on the consumer. Just look at sizes of everything from cups in convenience stores and fast food chains, to dinner plates, to packages of cookies, to houses. It’s getting harder and harder to buy things in reasonable quantities, even if you try. Today’s “small” cup size in most fast food restaurants is as big as the largest cup size 25 years ago. And why do we buy more? -Because the companies tell us it’s a better deal, of course! -What a great marketing strategy!

Consider the mortgage crisis and the huge ramifications it is having on the stock market and the global economy. This is something that directly stems from American over-consumption. Every American wants their own home, which is perfectly understandable and fine of course. But the simple truth is that not every American can really afford one- unless, however, the banks convince them that they can. Over the past decade, lenders continued to lower the bar for the amount of credit and mortgage payments that were required to buy a new home. This brought millions of people with low incomes or shaky credit closer to fulfilling the American dream, at least for a little while. Unfortunately, lenders went too far and convinced people they could have more than they could afford, and a shocking number of people grabbed at the offer. The inability to pay off their houses and stick with their mortgages after the initial “teaser” rates were hiked up to realistic levels has left millions of people in deep financial trouble. Whole sections of Detroit and Cleveland and other cities across the country are filled with huge, brand-new, rotting houses that people couldn’t afford and now wouldn’t buy if they had the cash because their value is sinking so fast. And again, the recent troubles on Wall Street, with Bear Stearns collapsing and other big banks which are tied to the mortgage lending schemes facing huge losses, plus the turmoil this is causing throughout the world financial markets has indicated what a big mistake these lending practices were. Other examples of the depth of the over-consumption problem is that on average, Americans actually have negative savings- they owe several thousand dollars in credit card debt instead of saving for tough times ahead. On a larger level, America has a trade balance of negative 819 billion dollars over the past twelve months, according to The Economist. However, it seems that with every economic downturn, the United States Government, as well as the shopping malls and advertisers encourage us consumers to somehow buy our way out of the crisis by “stimulating the economy”. Unfortunately, this just digs the hole deeper.

This over-consumption is not just a little splotch on the surface of our society, it’s a blight. Countless other examples could be noted such as consuming more stuff and driving bigger cars destroys the environment, or eating too much makes you fat and unhealthy. But the biggest issue is to get back to what culture really is. It is something people invest in with their time more than their credit cards. It is something that people can contribute to and interact with personally, not just read from a label or watch on the TV. Culture includes the people around us, not just the products we buy. And, understanding our complex society requires time and effort, so it’s just not possible to have it all, watch it all, or absorb it all. Consuming less mass culture liberates us by giving us enough precious time and money to learn about what is most important to us personally. It is not in our own favor or in our national interest to support that American Dream. It is necessary to pursue our own American Dream.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Iraq: Five Years Later

Slate magazine recently published a series of mea culpas from liberal-hawks who supported the run-up to the Iraq war, but have since retracted their support. There has been plenty of great commentary in the blogosphere regarding this article, but rather than add to it (the commentary, not necessarily greatness), I’d like to take this moment and ask our readers and authors to reflect on their thoughts and feelings prior to the Iraq war.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about posing this question for some time, not just because of the Slate article. However, the Slate article and the five year anniversary provide as good a context as could be hoped for. When trying to assess my own thoughts and feelings prior to the Iraq war, I ended up talking to Zach. We were roommates in college prior to the invasion, and I was hoping he could refresh my memory somewhat. You see, I remembered that I was adamantly against the war, and that I was pretty convinced that we wouldn’t find weapons of mass destruction when we went in. The problem, looking back, is I can’t remember exactly why I felt this way. I was not nearly as politically conscious as I am now. I did not get any news from alternative sources such as blogs and the Knight Ridder. I basically read my other roommate Jeff’s Time magazine (certainly not a bastion of anti-war journalism) and odds and ends of other sources I happened to come across.

In trying to recollect my thought process during that time, one thought that came to me is that perhaps, for whatever reason, I decided early on that the war was no good, and my environment insulated me from the pro-war craze. I think in part this may have been true. I did not really watch TV news, which in retrospect was the main vehicle for selling the war to the public. College campuses are notoriously liberal, and my school was no exception. My peer group was also generally liberal and anti-war.

However, I do recall some glaring exceptions. I remember talking to a professor I respected about the Iraq war, and I tossed off that I was firmly against it. I can still clearly remember his response. He said that the anti-war position was shameful because all these liberals were taking a pro-Saddam position just because of a dislike of Bush, and how could we support a dictator like Saddam Hussein? He said liberals needed to get on board with the plan, because the true liberal position was to support a policy that would overthrow a dictatorship and restore human rights to the region.

I also remember taking a day in one of my big lecture classes to have a discussion of the war, and the responses were about 50/50 for and against. Also, most anti-war opinions were qualified in some way. So I certainly was not insulated completely.

I also did not have a favorite pundit or source whose judgment I trusted completely. I know a lot of people were convinced when their favorite pundits joined the war craze. After all, who are us normal people to disagree with the experts? Since that time period, I have several sources of news that I consider reliable, and several pundits whose opinions I trust. I wonder now what I would think if the voices I trust lined up behind a bad war in the way that so many did in 2002-2003?

In sum, a lot of factors contributed to my views at the time. A combination of distrust of Bush, insulation from the "mainstream media", a college environment, and, excuse the immodesty, perhaps a dose of common sense. The scary thing is, though, that looking back I wasn't particularly informed, and that is a problem. Coming to a conclusion partly due to ignorance and bias is not a rational way to form an opinion, regardless of whether the result was correct. I guess when we speak of lessons learned, mine is to be vigilant about making informed, rational decisions based on evidence and argument. Then again, when the "evidence" is fabricated, there is something to be said for trusting your gut. Overall, though, the people who really intelligently protested the war were those people who felt something was fishy, engaged in some quality investigative journalism, and rationally disputed the fabricated evidence. Too bad there were too few of those journalists around.

Please comment on your own personal experiences and thoughts during that time.

Why I don't go to MIT

For the longest time I've been bothered by numbers. I mean, I get 'em, I use 'em, I know how to crunch 'em the way teachers, professors, bosses, and conductors have told me to, but I always had questions. Quantifying matter is easy, PeMDAS is easy, algebra is easy, trig is pretty easy, but there are a few things that bother me about numbers.

Here's a light example before I really embarrass myself:
I read a study about a guy who, after crunching enough data, surmised that the most efficient way to eliminate unwanted pocket change was to create an 18-cent piece. By analyzing x# of different "change for a dollar" scenarios he devised a theory that an 18-cent coin would eliminate a sizeable chunk of loose change. One way to consider the benefits of that study is to appreciate the lack of excess baggage that results from new coinage. Another way is that, by reducing necessary pocket change, you can reduce the amount of coins necessary in circulation and save money on raw materials as well as conserve resources. The one thing that wasn't brought up and that I find exceptionally important is that it would force people to think outside our deca-box. Ask a person to count their multiples of five. Ten? Twenty-five? All easy. Having to perform daily math that demands your knowledge of the multiples of 18, as well as being able to easily add 18, would expand people's required brain functions, I think. I mean, at some point it could possibly become as simple as counting multiples of five is, but right now multiples of 18 isn't simple, and I think a daily requirement of mental problem solving would be good for people.

Now for the crux of my rant:
I have always been bothered beyond belief that we will use one-hundred thousand but we won't use one-thousand million. This may seem like a silly thing to obsess over, but bear with me. First of all, yes, I get it, if you display a number like, say, 100000000000, it's going to have the same value no matter what you call it. You can put commas wherever you'd like, you can call it "the number Reginald" if you'd like, but it's still
100000000000 of something. Most people call it 100,000,000,000, or "one-hundred billion." Some people call it "one-hundred milliard." I call it something else. I never considered what to call it until today. I realized that, if numbers follow a specific pattern, which they should considering humans like patterns, they should follow it all the way across the board (well, that part I've thought for sometime). I could never find a good correlation because I'd always start at "one-thousand million," but looking back I only needed to understand ten. In Arabic numerals, at least to a point, the pattern goes that a number unit goes until it is exhausted, then it begins a new unit. The ones exhaust, they expand to tens, because you can no longer describe ones in terms of ones once you've exhausted that unit (but you don't necessarily have to stop at nine either: you can invent a number called "Fred" that has a funky Prince-emblem shape to it that is like the ten of the ones unit). This starts to make sense when you hit the end of the tens (title of my next album). At ninety-nine you're saying that you have nine-tens and nine-ones. The next number isn't described as having ten-tens and zero ones, it is instead called one hundred. Now, in theory, you could have ten-tens, but that would be tough to incrementally organize, because you'd have to expand one organizer, then the other, and back & forth until it's time to call it the ten-ten-tens. Messy. Oh yeah, and the rule in text definition is: "you cannot use a word to define itself," which is what you'd be doing. This is why you can't have ten-tens and must move on, but our system jumps the gun. Back to the topic. So hundreds turn into thousands, thousands to ten-thousands, ten-thousands to one-hundred thousands, and we don't use one-thousand thousands, so we invent the million. From there, ideally, we would have one-thousand millions, one-million billions, one-billion trillions, etc. That was my original assertion. Until tonight. Where my thought process always hit a phone pole was where I forgot to analyze that one-thousand should really be ten-hundred. Which people do use, but only as a short-hand way of referencing large numbers.
"Hey Gerald, how much did you win at Keno?"
"Hey Buckwheat, I won one-thousand, two-hundred dollars."
"Gerald, 'round these parts we say 'twelve-hundred.' You're liable to get shot talkin' like that."
See my point? In reality, if we were adhering to patterns, we would run up to ninety-nine hundred ninety-nine before switching over to one-thousand. But then we'd be losing the one-thousand dollars we just won at Keno. Ah, notice though, we'd be gaining the ten-thousand we used to know. No, really, I swear the secret to sub-prime mortgage rates is in here somewhere.
"But Ruxton, if it's all just different names for the same quantitative value, why change the familiar system?"
Because the system we know know utilizes a linear number plot with broken linear concept. Adhering to patterns set forth at the onset allows people to think outside of their box. It also insinuates a pattern, a reason. Einstein once said, loosely quoted, "If you can't explain it to a six-year old you don't understand it yourself." Honestly, given our number pattern, may give way to another adage, "easier said than done." Well, I probably could teach numbers, but the institutionalized repetition that I was submitted to couldn't hurt the process any. It's not so much an issue of function, it's an issue of concept. Which, if you think about it long enough, is a pretty common duality amongst a lot of characteristics of our lives.

The real clincher is whether or not we call "one hundred" "one-ten" instead.

(The answer is 'no,' the first number in the statement is a multiplier, one is implied).

Thursday, March 20, 2008

North/South Reflections

The area I live in was originally settled by Tequesta Indians and Bahamian scavengers, hearty individuals who were immune to the constant heat, alligator-choked swamps, and inundating humidity. In fact, it wasn't until 1896 that white folk were crazy enough to stake a claim on this land and attempt to Europeanize it. At the time when all the major industrial northern cities were prospering, Miami was still a swelteringly hot mangrove forest. Unlike the civilized, temperate world, we only have two seasons down here: hot and dry, and monsoon season (which is even hotter).

Just as the automobile transformed the urban landscape of Los Angeles in the 1950s, two inventions are responsible for modern Miami: first was the popularization of the air conditioner in the 1940s-50s. This led many northerners to believe that it's actually bearable down here; with the promise of an air-conditioned paradise in mind, many bored northerners pack the family sedan to shoot down I-95 and homestead their own little piece of the tropics. The next major invention that changed Miami demographics (and this does not count the boats that brought over all of the Cubans) came fifty years later and didn't even dry your skin. It is the reason I can live here and work for a company in San Diego - yes, the internet was pivotal in bringing a new group of people down from the north to try out the tropical life. Miami Beach is composed of many over-educated, young, white professionals just like myself who work for companies in Boston, New York, Charlotte, and Chicago. With fast, reliable internet service, my tribe of wanderers are freed to live wherever we want; and, honestly, why stomp about in the snow up in Minneapolis when you could be laying on the palm-blanketed beach with your laptop and getting paid the same amount?

Right now is Spring Break for universities across the country, and Miami is flooded with young people eager to do stupid things that they will either regret or not remember the next morning. They come from all over the place: Ohio, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Michigan. But the vast majority of people going crazy on the beach right now are from one place - the north. It's true, people in northern climates love warm beaches, palm trees, sunny skies, and scantily-clad people. Canada is not a Spring Break hot spot - Cancun is.

I spent a week up in frigid Boston at the beginning of the month, and it was interesting to see all the posters for tropical paradise vacations spangling travel agency windows and billboards. Down in Miami, we don't have pictures of bleak, cold Boston on our travel advertisements: we have the same things they do, palm trees, hammocks, and pristine beaches.

The south is an alluring, seductive idea to the north. It is hyper-real, and thus the object of fantasy. On my Boston trip, someone told me how they could never live in Florida because it's "not the real world." "Well," I said, "to many folks down there, it's unreal how anyone would actually elect to live in a place that's buried under snow half the year." That seemed to end the discussion. Indeed, to many well-off northerners, the south is synonymous with vacations and retirement. In other words, it is a place where you go when reality - you know, that pesky career, education, family, etc. - doesn't quite apply. It is a place where you go to lose yourself, not to be yourself.

But the rest of the year, when northerners aren't shooting tequila and passing out on the beach, they have a very different relationship with the idea of the south. If the south is not a hyper-real paradise, then it is something far more negative and complicated in the eyes of many people. For hundreds of years, the north has treated the south in a condescending, patronizing (if not outright colonial) manner, and this isn't just true of the US. Northern Italians look down on the industrially late-blooming south; Russians vacation in Crimea but make their fortunes in Moscow; denizens of Tokyo talk about the quaint native life in Okinawa. When northerners aren't partying in warm, southern places (or at least fantasizing about it), many of them are smugly satisfied that they live in more civilized places.

The south represents a fascinating paradox: it is the beckoning smile of warmth, relaxation and fun; it is also the symbol of cultural backwardness, poverty, and danger. If you look at a map of extreme poverty on this planet, it clings pretty closely to the equator. Similarly, heinous diseases and violent crime tend to occur at the highest levels in places with palm trees and only two seasons. In this regard, Miami is to rich, industrialized Boston what Kinshasa is to Koln. All the desire northerners feel towards the south and the southern lifestyle is accompanied by an equal amount of dread. In your dreams (and your vacations), these places represent carefree relaxation; in reality, they are scary.

Nothing underscores this complex dynamic more than the cruising industry (which Alan Biller memorably documented on this blog last month). On cruises, well-to-do northerners make stops at carefully manicured "towns" across the Caribbean to get a sense of the local life and buy cheap bric-a-brac. Tour maps supplied by the cruise lines show the area where it is safe and acceptable for moneyed white people to wander about; they encourage guests to stay only within this area, lest they be confronted with the reality of equatorial poverty and crime. A cruise-loving friend stayed in Haiti for a day. "It was beautiful!", she said. Of course, her experience of Haiti was a small island off the coast of the hemisphere's most impoverished nation that is owned entirely by Carnival Cruises. No doubt she got what she expected: sunny skies, beautiful beaches, and swaying palms. With a little luck, maybe she didn't even have to deal with any real Haitians.

While it's a fact that many tropical locations have crippling problems with their economies, ecologies, and governments, a good deal of the push/pull dynamic at play here has to do with a simple fact: it's nice living where it's warm. People in the north tell themselves that it's not real down here, or that people who live in the southern climes are slow and dimwitted; but fundamentally, this is just masking a deep resentment. I can get up in the morning (after only using a sheet at night), toss on a pair of shorts and flip-flops, and go walk down the street - leisurely, there's no rush - for a nice little cup of Cuban coffee. My body never tenses up because of the cold; I never have to hurry to get out from the biting wind. That's more than people in Chicago can say for over half the year.

It used to be that people lived up north and retired down south because there were more jobs in the big northern cities. But the internet is allowing a whole transient population of people to flow into places like Miami and realize that - it's true - life is a little bit better when your body is happy. Perhaps in another 50 years the old dichotomies between north and south will break down a bit; perhaps chilly places will be the vacation novelties; perhaps everyone will live on the beach (all of this, of course, will be made possible by our accelerating global warming. Thanks for making a warm, southern life possible for everyone, Exxon Mobil!).

I will most probably be leaving Miami soon. Nevertheless, the thrill of writing this post on my balcony at 11:30pm with a t-shirt on has sold me on this whole tropical-life thing. And for all those who can deal with the (messy) reality beyond the hyper-real beaches and palms, it too could be yours.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Postmodern Zoomusicology: A Trial Study

As launched by Mark Samples' previous post, "Mirth and Matter" brings you another exciting exercise in the newest musicological sub-field, postmodern zoomusicology!

Heinrich J. Heideschopenburg, Ph.D.
Institut fur Lacherlichmusikwissenschaft, Zurich

Abstract: Research indicates that male starlings that eat worms tainted with sewage contamination suffer both physiological and behavioral consequences. Intriguingly, consuming contaminants such as estrogen and estrogen-like endocrine disrupters change the nature of the birds' songs, leading to concomitant ramifications for mating behavior. To what extent do these findings shed light on human musicianship, hormones, and mating patterns?

In a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Cardiff in Wales and reported in the NYT, starlings were fed worms that are common in and around human sewage. These worms contain high levels of estrogen and similar compounds that are excreted naturally by humans and are a common fixture to industrial chemicals, food preservatives, and plastics. These contaminated worms are a fixture in the diets of today's British starling population, although studies conclusively demonstrate that the increased level of estrogen is not simply a result of them being British, as one might expect (though contradicted in III, George: 1776). American birds eat worms that are contaminated by similar substances, and they have similar estrogen levels.

The results are astounding. Birds that eat dirty worms (I owe this term to Aguilera: 2002) exhibit a loss of physical strength and virility that hinders their ability to father chicks with the right ladybird. However, the sewage contamination is a double-edged sword. While their physical strength deteriorates, their songs become more complex as a result of eating the bad worms. This is perhaps counterintuitive: how could environmental pollutants actually increase starlings' musical abilities? Nevertheless, this is what researchers observed. And the ladies responded well to their winged troubadours - males with more complex songs attracted more lovebirds for mating. These courtships, however, are often unfruitful; estrogen-high male birds are less capable of producing progeny than their stronger, better-fed peers.

The press reacted. British journalists pounced on this story as a potential long-needed remedy to encourage Englishmen to actually mate with Englishwomen on the Isle of Brittany instead of having to migrate overseas for sexual dalliance on the strength of their accents (Dirty Furrner: 2008). While the study seemed to indicate that complex-song-singing birds were staying on the island at a higher rate as a result of their romantic gifts while the lesser singers took flight to America, where they heard that the birds were easy, no conclusive link between these starling studies and humans has yet been demonstrated. Until now.

The ramifications of this study are immense, not only for the British starling population (which is shrinking dramatically), but for human music making (Christopher Small's "musicking") and courtship. Just as studies on rats predict human reactions to a remarkable degree, so too does this research shed light on human affairs.

First, let's return to the data. Estrogen leads to greater musical complexity, so the converse must be true - testosterone must lead to musical simplicity. And while the females are attracted to the more ornate songs, it is a better biological bet for them to stick with the musical Neanderthals. In human terms, Souljah Boy is a safer sociobiological decision than Karlheinz Stockhausen (if he were alive, that is)(Stockhausen: 5 Dec, 2007).

Let's examine what this research indicates for human beings. As every jazz and classical musician - admittedly marginal members of the species Homo sapien - knows well, musical complexity can only get you so far in the Darwinian race to propagate your genes. What may seem a dazzling and alluring musical performance onstage, an event that is sure to attract the complexity-hungry females, is actually a skill set that leads to a disappointing and demoralizing combination of poor real wages; loss of social vitality due to time spent in the practice room; poor social prestige; and the constant fear that if you get a flu, you'll have to sell the Bosendorfer to pay your medical expenses (for more, see The New York Philharmonic: 1842-present). In humans, just like in starlings, the ability to produce musical complexity has no correlation whatsoever with the ability to effectively produce and raise functional and well-adapted children. Frank Zappa knows this well (Moon-Unit Zappa, on a wild date with the author: last night).

It is no surprise, then, that the lesser, testosterone-fueled musicians add more to the human population than their brainier brethren. If Stockhausen is the model for our complex but poor-breeding bird (sexy, I know, but STAY AWAY, ladies!), Souljah Boy (of "Crank That" fame) is the simple-minded, testosterone driven breeder that any lady could depend on to continue her family tree. I shudder to think of all the countless masses that hardcore rappers have fathered over the years (that would no doubt make for another titillating study); indeed, the frequent illegitimacy of these couplings make for a tricky statistical group to analyze. Evidence for the sociobiological suitability of hardcore commercial rappers is found in abundance in their lyrics - these are clearly people with sex (not retrograde inversions) on the brain. When our research team deciphered the coded meaning of the sophisticated prosody "Super-soak that HO!", from "Crank That," we were aghast (see The Urban Dictionary). Clearly, it is the testosterone/simple musicians with the greater urge to multiply; they are, therefore, greater adapted to their environment and serve a better chance of continuing their kind in perpetuum. They are the winners in Darwin's little game (Darwin: 1859).

Perhaps the evolutionary nature of musical complexity/simplicity is reverse from what is often assumed: complexity has led to simplicity. Popular music in the last century is a telling indication of this phenomenon. Opera arias paved the way for ragtime and march; ragtime/march led to jazz; jazz led to bebop; bebop led to rock; rock led to funk; funk led to disco; disco led to the 1980s; the 80s led to grunge rock; grunge gave way to N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys; boy bands led to silly commercial hip-hop; rap led to the apex of musical simplicity, Souljah Boy. Not only is the clear downward arch intuitively felt, it is also a statistical, scientific fact (Heideschopenburg: present publication).

This phenomenon also corresponds with a seismic shift in the global musical map. For many years, complex German music ruled supreme in the concert halls of Europe and other civilized places (Schoenberg was a well-known consumer of sewage). In the twentieth century, this situation changed drastically as American music began to experience greater and greater popularity. As the Operhauses of Germany gave way to the warehouse (or should I say "Waarhaus") raves of Brooklyn, the "evolution" was complete (see Beethoven: 1825 and Oakenfold: 1997 for evidence). The ultimately complex had been eclipsed by the ultimately simple. And the British, now as always, possess the greater amount of estrogen.

In conclusion, the phenomenon of biologically-advantageous evolution leading to musical deevolution is a significant problem for starling and human alike. We at the esteemed Institut fur Lacherlichmusikwissenschaft will continue to conduct research on this important issue facing musicians, birds, and people who enjoy sex. Thank you very much.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dissertation Worthy?

After months of pondering, I have finally struck upon a dissertation topic that's worth a couple hundred pages of writing. It hit me while reading this bbc article, and my unofficial title is:

Sweet as Honey: The Effects of Serbian Turbo-Folk Music on the Protected Wildlife of Macedonia

My only concern is finding the bear to get his side of the story, you know, with him being a convicted criminal and all...

The Electability Meme

With all the squabbling between the Clinton camp and Obama camp over who would fare better against John McCain in the general election, the only clear winner is John McCain himself.

I understand the political necessity of this current fight. The two candidates have fought on health-care, judgment v. experience, rhetoric v. action, etc. With a primary that is certain to drag on at least another month to Pennsylvania, you have to change up the narrative to keep the voters interested.

But for the sake of the party and for the sake of having a shot at hell in getting out of Iraq in 2009, can we please not make McCain out to be this all-powerful Republican nemesis who will destroy anyone but [insert candidate of choice] in the general election? The one thing we have learned from the politics of fear is that it gives outsized importance to the bogeyman.

The extra long primary is obviously going to benefit McCain. While the two candidates try out future right-wing ammunition against each other, McCain is free to take pot shots at them from the sidelines. The net result: when the general election actually begins, we will have an exhausted party and candidate against a Republican who has spent the last several months acquiring his talking points from half of the Democratic party's candidate of choice. To invoke perhaps the first sports analogy I've ever committed to text, it is like those division championships where one team wrapped up a best in seven in four games, and the other team slugged it out to game seven.

So, a few suggestions to the candidates:

1. Stop making McCain the bogeyman for the sake of hitting your opponent, because you just might succeed in actually making the county think he is electable.

2. McCain does not have the monopoly on cross-party pot shots during the primaries. How about once every day, both campaigns unite to hit back against the Republicans on, well, I don't know, anything. This shouldn't be too hard. Call me if you need suggestions.

3. This is where one and two combine. How about instead of arguing over who is more electable, how about competing over who can best frame the way in which the Republicans have flushed the country down the toilet? Who can best describe the utter disaster of the Iraq war in one sentence? Or the tanking of the economy? Or the widening gap between the rich and the poor? Or the best description of the way gas started at less than $2 when Bush entered into office and is now at $4 in some areas (actually, that is pretty self-explanatory)? How about Katrina, torture, warrantless wiretapping, the firing of U.S. attorneys and the outing of Valerie Plame for political purposes? What about rendition, black sites, Guantanamo Bay? The politicization of every organ of our government at the expense of the average American? No-bid contracts at home and abroad, corruption, lost emails? Let's hear the candidates make the case for why a Democrat is better suited to change course from this than John "100 more years" McCain. Really, it shouldn't be hard.

But no. Instead, we get who can win big states, red states, purple states, etc. Look, this is 2008, not 2004, not 2000. We've changed the narrative a lot already this election, let's change it again. Let's get rid of this blue state/red state notion, because like the ultra-nemesis McCain meme, repeating it over and over again gives it more power than it actually has. The fact is that the Bush presidency has hurt everyone, red-state or blue-state. Not even the millionaires are benefiting from the Bush presidency (see Bear Stearns). Let's put McCain on the defensive. Let him make the case for why we should continue Bush's failed policy. Starting with the premise that the Republican will win, and working from there has been a losing strategy for the last eight years. We have two candidates who are exciting, and either one should be able to trounce McCain. They just have to understand that the rules have changed.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sympathy for the Rebel

"Yes. In the end, you will walk out. Because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate." - Ghandi (1982)

Yet today 350 million Indians can keep 100 Tibetans from marching to their homeland.

So tell me, what validates one peoples' struggles above the struggles of another peoples'?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Little Forgiveness

The recent hullabaloo over Eliot Spitzer's involvement in a prostitution ring underscores two significant characteristics of our contemporary American values, one positive and one negative. The good - as is often the case - is not nearly as complex and multifaceted as the bad, so it will not take as long to address.

Simply put, Americans are allergic to rank hypocrisy. It is my firm contention that had Eliot Spitzer not been personally involved in the crack down on prostitution rings during his tenure as Attorney General, this messy affair would not be nearly as radioactive as it is now. The issue to many people is not about whether or not paying for sex is right or wrong - it is about self-righteous morality covering up personal involvement in the alleged sin. This sanctimoniousness is not uncommon in recent politics, especially on the conservative end of the spectrum: Larry Craig solicited sex in a public restroom and denied any involvement (and his latent homosexuality); Ted Haggard hid drug use and sexual contact with men behind a facade of God-commanded bigotry. What is really at issue here, for many of us, is not whether Craig and Haggard are sexually confused. I could care less whether an Idaho senator sleeps with men or women, and many people (although not his core constituency) would agree with me. The real damage in these scandals - like the recent flap over Eliot Spitzer - lies in the hypocrisy that these men exhibit. When words and actions belie the truth in American politics, heads roll.

But only sometimes, and about some things. As I write, Spitzer is set to make an address offering his resignation, thus ending perhaps one of the most promising political careers of the last 8 years. And what is it that is powerful enough to ruin a successful man in American politics? While hypocrisy plays some role in the firestorm of media, political, and public criticism these last three days, he is not ultimately stepping down because he is a hypocrite. He is stepping down because he paid a consenting adult woman to have sex with him in the privacy of a hotel room.

As usual, Glenn Greenwald hits the nail on the head. Spitzer's involvement with prostitutes has nothing to do with his policies and his ability of govern. This is an entirely personal issue, and while some naysayers may object that it is illegal to hire a prostitute, making his crime real and not just moral, the fact of the matter is that what goes on behind that hotel bedroom door has zero bearing on Spitzer's ability to govern. And that's why he's in office - to govern, not to be a faithful husband.

The Monica Lewinsky scandal presented a similar set of issues. Like Spitzer's hypocrisy, the extenuating circumstances of the Clinton scandal had to do with his previous relationships with women and with his prevarications about them. However, the root fact that drove so many on the right into frothy-mouthed fury was his infidelity. Pure and simple. Like Eliot Spitzer, Clinton was brought low by a personal matter that bore little to no relationship to his capacity to effectively lead. In fact, Lewinskygate rendered the last couple years of his presidency impotent - the scandal ruined his ability to govern, not his involvement with a ditsy intern.

In many places in the world, sexual matters like these have no place in politics. Nicholas Sarkozy, for instance, left his wife last year to run off with a model, and while this provoked a whole lot of tabloid photographs, it never threated the man's political career. Indeed, the response from many regions of the world (read: Europe) to Clinton and Lewinsky was a resounding "So what?" We as Americans need to ask ourselves a fundamental question: are issues like this worth getting furious about? In a conversation with Zorro last month, she pointed out something very interesting about how many people around the world perceive America. Americans are full of political passion and are always making a lot of noise. Often, however, we fixate on trivial and ridiculous things at the expense of real problems. The Spitzers of the country go down in flames while we continue to consume over half of the world's resources, are engaged in an endless and costly war in the Middle East, have a shameful portion of our population living in poverty, etc. etc. Why aren't we furious about these things instead of about what goes on in the bedrooms of Messrs. Clinton, Craig, Haggard, Foley, Spitzer, et al?

Fundamentally, this comes down to a question of forgiveness. And distraction. Let me explain: our puritanical roots make us consider infidelity an evil, end of discussion, instead of a symptom of psychological anguish or extreme stress. We simply don't know what it's like to be under the sort of stress a president or a governor has to deal with everyday, especially when the world seems out the thwart our every move. Clinton and Spitzer both faced grueling opposition in the final days of their administrations: perhaps these silly flings were just a way for them to work off some tension so they wouldn't be driven to do something stupid, say like invading Iraq on false pretenses at the behest of a cabal of national security wackos and corporate powers. And this is where the powers of distraction come in. As puritanical as we are, sex scandals are a brilliant way to fill the airwaves with meaningless trifle in order to distract people from real, substantive issues. As Spitzer's face is all over the papers, the FISA extension is being debated. Few people know or care about this, however, despite its implications for constitutional rights.

I don't mean to justify infidelity. I just think we should try to exercise a little more empathy, understanding, and forgiveness, especially in matters that are entirely personal. Let's save the chest-beating rage for real problems.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Daylight Savings Time

... is one reason why I'm up right now. Amidst my mental ramblings at this hour came a question about Daylight Savings Time. While employed in some form for thousands of years, the modern practice of DST came about early in the 20th century and was proposed as a means to allow more daylight hours for leisure and recreational activities. It was then noted to also have potentially promising effects on the economy, energy consumption, agriculture, transportation scheduling, and safety. All of those benefits have fallen under scrutiny and for good reasons.

One of the things I've recognized about the Bush administration is the extension of DST and even the consideration of a 2 hour leap. A lot of emphasis is put on the conservation of energy, but there is also the idea that gasoline consumption increases. Right now I'm finding myself with a different perspective. Once upon a time we used the sun and seasons to track our chronology. Time was, at that point, a tool of human usage. Today we find ourselves subservient to the clock, and instead of time serving us we are its slaves. Come time to execute DST a very large portion of the world finds themselves host to a simultaneous case of jet lag, albeit only an hour's worth. This makes me wonder if there isn't some form of political gain to having so many people operating in such a nebulous state. It seems that every time we make the switch we've just gotten used to the system we'd superficially employed approximately half a year earlier. The displacement of our independent chronology hosts the potential to inspire psychological effects on people. And such is my question. What is your appraisal of the overall usefulness of DST? Do you think it's simply a method employed to optimize our lives with clever manipulation of the clock? Do you think it has the implication, potential, or even practice of serving government bodies with a degree of control over its populace?


Thursday, March 6, 2008

Warning! Potential Buzzkill.

I want to ask you some questions. But I need to define some terms first.

I read a play called Thom Pain (based on nothing) this week - it's a long close-to-home monologue in which a man (protagonist implies too much agency) slips between various episodes from his life. He knows he's being watched - he's performing for (or confronting) an audience - but he doesn't know what he means. There are only episodes, there is no narrative he knows that can bind them. He apologizes for being so scattered, but is resigned to it. He defies the audience to do better, not believing for a second that they can.

And so, as a boy, he watched his dog being electrocuted. He was fascinated and appalled. He wet his bed. He had a dream about being covered by bees and their stings were relief. He once loved someone. It was sublime and visceral and it ended and he wants it again, but not as it was. He's too savvy to give in to the blithe veneer of conventional narratives, but'll be damned if he knows what else to do. He's as honest as he knows how to be without necessarily believing in honesty. He wants to be sincere, but sincerity is a "joke":

A horse walks into a bar, and the barman says, "Why the long face?".
The horse replies, "I've just been diagnosed with AIDS. And I guess, well, I'm feeling sorry for myself."
So the barman says, "Oh God. That's awful. I'm so sorry."

The monologue ends in an incantation. Despite it all, despite the incongruity, the missing links, the obvious connections, the shifting, the sincerity, the irony, the fickleness, the desire, the ambivalence, despite all of it, Thom Pain has to "Be stable. Be stable. Be stable. Be stable."

What a crazy imperative to live by - to be stable. The reason it hit me so hard is because I know many people for whom being stable - or at least seeming stable - is a primary directive that governs their actions and words. In fact, I wonder if I know any people for whom it is not.

I grew up with someone extraordinary. A wonderful artist, a beautiful singer, brilliant at sport. She lashed out as a teenager, was institutionalized as severely bi-polar, and has spent the rest of her life doing her best to be ordinary. She's in sales now. She moves from tortured relationship to tortured relationship with the most "stable" marriage prospects she can find. Between bouts of alcoholism and depression she speaks emptily as though trying to convince herself and others: "You know, if you just keep your shoulders back and your head held high, and your nose to the grindstone, you'll be fine."

When I was an undergrad I met a man who grew up in a conservative Christian home. He came out to his Christian therapist and was told to put an elastic band around his wrist to be snapped every time he felt lustful towards a man. Away from home at college, where he was pursuing an economics degree, he exploded into drug-fueled promiscuity and insisted that he wanted to die. He too was institutionalized - as much for the sake of those of us on suicide watch as for his own. When he was released, he ran away from home and worked the streets as a crack whore. The last time he called me, he was doing a correspondence degree in economics because he was "just tired of disappointing everyone".

I've worked with veterans of current and past conflicts who were struggling to string their experiences together. The post-bellum narrative doesn't hold. Past trauma slips through the cracks of their "peaceful" present. And yet they're charged with the responsibility of "reintegrating" into civilian life - as if civilian life is and always was homogeneously comfortable and safe.

Those three examples are "pathologized" - bi-polar disorder, reactive depression, PTSD. But what about a man who spends two hours a day in a gym. Or a person who spends four hours a day sitting in front of a laptop obsessively ordering words that'll probably never be read. Or a woman who can't leave the house without covering up every blemish and ordering every hair on her head - or a man, for that matter. Or people who can't stop talking. Or people who won't say anything. Or people who won't concede a point. Or people who roll over. Or people terrified of loneliness. Or people who lose themselves to their lovers. Or people who believe in God. Or people who don't. Or people who live in gated communities. Or people who revile people who live in gated communities.

I sometimes think there's nothing more to us than what we do while we wait for who knows what.

How fucking Godot of me. Or, like Penelope waiting for Odysseus, staving off undesirable suitors with the promise that, once her tapestry is done, she'll marry again. And so, without the likelihood that Odysseus will come home, she weaves and weaves and weaves during the day and unravels and unravels and unravels at night. It's an endlessly absurd sequence that barely holds her together. And yet Penelope is figured as the image of subdued suffering and loyalty to a cause (her cause, incidentally, boned everything that moved on his way home).

This then, some would have us believe, is the postmodern condition - an a priori skepticism that undercuts ideas of real value and depth, a state of perpetual nausea, a fingerhold-less sheer wall, an un-mappable topography of irreconcilable episodes, a veneer of signifiers in the midst of which we, afloat and un-moored, feel compelled to be stable, be stable, be stable.

My own personal tapestry? What do I weave and unravel? Bizarrely enough in light of the foregoing, the story I tell myself is that people are good - even if I don't always know what "good" means. I guess you could call me an optimist. My glass is usually half full (he says, aware of how emptily conventional the metaphor is). And, look, I'm not going to pretend to be very stable. I'm curious and stupid enough to turn my glass over to see what it looks like half empty. Sometimes everything spills out (he writes, relieved that he has managed to redeem the metaphor with a little flourish of his own). No spillage today. I'm in kind of a good mood.

And what do I do while I wait for who knows what? I think about my hair and like to remain skinny. More importantly, believing in goodness, I rely on the kindness of strangers to affirm my faith, and I aspire to being a kind stranger myself. And I get very upset when strangers fail me and when I fail strangers. I also believe in curiosity. I read, I write, I teach, I opine. Pointless maybe. Maybe not. But this way, I can live.

Which brings me to my questions, ye kind and strange denizens of the floating interwebs:
1) Am I wrong? Is this vision of the world a symptom of a middle-class comfort bowdlerized into onanism? If so, help me see what I don't now.
2) However, if what I've written rings true to you, what do you do while you wait for who knows what?

I ask because I'm curious.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Silliness Spotted in Eugene (OH NO!)

On my way home from a job interview today (musicians gotta eat, don't know why, rules is rules) I drove my usual route home and passed the Chinese Baptist Church. It was a glance at first, until my brain caught up and realized what the sign in front was saying. "Praise the seasons, God is good."

Now, I get it. I get that the Earth is God's creation, rejoice, etc, etc. But isn't season worship a Pagan practice? Solstices & equinoxes. This must be that kinder, gentler Christianity Kevin Smith told us about. Or it's an example of the hybridization of two cultures, but, y'know, that's not as funny.

W is a Hero of the Revolution

Recently, the Daily Show did a story on W's visit to the Mighty Country of Africa. What was remarkable, so Jon Stewart and John Oliver pointed out, was that W was joyfully received: flags were flown, children sat on the shoulders to catch a glimpse, W's visage had been printed onto fabric worn as sarongs. Yes, the glorious Country of Africa loves W so much, that they sit on his face. The Daily Show folk pointed out that W's munificence toward the Great Country of Africa, the idea of his doing actual good - he has poured billions of your American dollars into malaria and (more controversially) AIDS prevention - provides an insurmountable glitch in the established narrative of his essential crap-ness. Take that Kanye!

Being, as I am, a Dirty Furrner from the Magnificent Country of Africa, I too was struck by W's munificence. Do I love him deeply? Maybe not. Do I dream of sitting on his face? Perhaps not in a way that would please him. But I do think there's something to be said about the wonder that W has unwittingly loosed upon America. There's a way in which I think I might even appreciate him. And it's not merely a matter of me liking my mosquito nets sponsored - it's bigger even than that. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the man's administration is such a train-wreck, that, well, it's making American people want better for themselves and the world.

Look, I'm a Dirty Furrner, with Dirty Furrner blood, and my words are to be taken from whence they come, which is somewhere Other. And it's a tricky "somewhere Other" to explain. I come from a very privileged section of a small society in the most Southerly peripheral province of that Hyperbole-defying Country of Africa. I'm a WASP. I grew up in idyllic splendor in a place where shit rained down and still does. For the longest time it rained down in my name and I did nothing to persuade myself that things should be different.

Apartheid South Africa: heady days. I watched a lot of TV. It was very comfortable, watching virtual white policemen fire virtual rubber bullets into virtual black "communist terrorists". But it all changed. It had to change. The disempowered majority stood as one, refused to play along, insisted angrily. They'd had enough, and rightfully so. Promises kept getting broken. Lies kept being told. And so people stood up.

I remember having a conversation with some lily-white pals on the playground of my lily-white high school at about the time a black majority-led government became inevitable. Fueled by ignorance and fear, we posited a future in which white people would be driven from their televisions, nay, their very homes and into the sea. Our gardens would become chicken scratch patches. Malls would fall into disrepair. Anarchy would reign. We were such little bigots that our vision of a majority-led South Africa was also an apocalyptic one.

Fourteen armageddon-less years and many near-miraculous if imperfect changes beyond those moments, I can say this: The apartheid government lied to everyone, including whites. That's not to absolve myself. I lacked the curiosity required to stand for what was better. And if I am a curious person today, it is in no small part out of the fear of being lied to again, and believing it, and getting it terribly, painfully, painfully wrong. I probably still do all the time, but I'll be damned if I take it sitting down.

Which brings me back to W and why we might, through some perverse historical twist, find ourselves thankful to him. He's in his "legacy-phase" - hence his rhythmlessly munificent jaunt across the the Fucking Fabulous Country of Africa. He keeps yokelling on about how history will prove him right. And so, as a Dirty Furrner, and by way of thanks for my shiny new mosquito net and abstinence program, I thought I'd write what, to me at least, is the only conceivably redeeming version of George W. Bush's legacy. It requires a few leaps of the imagination and should probably be set, oh, 2000 years of forgetfulness from now, but, for what it's worth -

Imagine a hologram in the American Presidential museum (in 4008 holograms will be so passe):

George W Bush stands on a mound. He has a beard. His teary blue eyes gaze slitted at the masses who will eventually betray him. His arms are akimbo in a Messianic embrace. He is illuminated by a heavenly pillar of light that has burst through the clouds as if by divine sanction, an iridescent sheen of oil coating his skin. A giant "Mission Accomplished" banner floats overhead as though suspended off some kind of aircraft carrier structure that seems miraculously to have materialized in the Israeli scrub lands.

Imagine a modulated voice streaming the following texts into the heads of passers by:

"Selflessly, like the martyr he was, George W. Bush told bald-faced lies. Rotten, ill-conceived untruths. With nary a regard for what people would think of him, he posited unspeakable policies against the interests of the majority. Self-effacing, he vetoed good ideas. Selflessly self-enriching, he shrunk the bounty of the earth into a couple of loaves and a few fishes, and left the masses clamoring. He stumbled over his words. He drawled idiocies. But he never misspoke and was never misheard. He refused to stoop to feel-good proclamations. His policies said "Suffer the Little Children" without all that other "to come unto me" crap. Every child was be left behind. He refused to pretend to take in the world's poor, tired and huddled masses, when he could make poor, tired and huddled masses both at home and abroad.

George W. Bush consistently made filth his own name and legacy because he knew, as that other great American, Karl Marx, knew, that revolution rides on desperation. He knew that if the masses got tired, huddled and poor enough, they'd also get pissed off. They'd revolt. They'd demand change. They'd insist. They'd mobilize. They'd fight. They might even vote for a man descended from the Super-duper Country of Africa. George W. Bush cared about black people.

George W. Bush's gift to America was simply this: wisely, generously, he made injustice impossible to ignore. He oversaw the erosion of civil liberties in order to remind people of the importance of civil liberties. He knew that for American people to take responsibility for their choices, they had to understand the privilege and value of choice. So deep was his insight, so perfect his vision. Only George W. Bush - and perhaps that other visionary, Dick Cheney the Baptist - could have forced the American people out of their arm chairs and away from their televisions because the shit he rained down was no longer virtual. People actually died. Torture really happened. Disenfranchisement was no longer limited to far-off jungled shores. Such horror, Bush knew, had to stick in the craw of every decent person. And America was then, as it is today, filled to brimming with good and generous people who would not put up with George W. Bush. They refused to hide behind blithe exceptionalism and unchallenged entitlement. Good people stood on principle. Good people stood.

Blessed, blessed Saint W. Pious Hero. Our Revolutionary Nadir-in-Chief. Everything after him was better."

Something like that, anyway.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Up the mountain with power and pride

Here is the second of my series of republished missives from small-town Japan, dusted off in honor of a trip to Toshi's Ramen last night and the resulting nostalgia that the potent scent of green tea never fails to evoke.

Yesterday, I walked up a mountain.

The annual Kinpo Town Omusubi Marathon compensates for the fact that it is only 8 km long by making the majority of the course up a remarkably steep (albeit paved) slope.

Picture a windy, switchback-laden mountain road. Now imagine a disorganized parade of about 900 people, from three-year-olds to grandparents, trudging up the hill's stiff grade bearing backpacks, sweatshirts, walking sticks, strollers, and (as this is Japan) cellphones. One little girl I passed was reading a comic book as she walked along behind her parents. A few people, usually slightly older men making the climb alone, wore khakis, hiking boots, wire-rimmed glasses, plaid shirts, and many-pocketed fishing vests.
Put a Starbuck's cup in their hands and these guys would look like Portland or Seattle natives. Odd that the closest
thing I have to a 'native costume' is considered proper attire for climbing mountains here, while we wear it every day.

The truly amazing thing is that an additional 300 or so people managed to RUN the whole way.
I, at least, am decidedly not in shape enough to manage that. A friend of mine who works at one of the elementary schools in town was one of these crazy people. "Good morning, Melinda!" he yelled as he jogged past, flashing a big smile. Even more red-faced than usual, I managed a feeble "Ganbatte!" in reply, but he was already almost out of
sight around the next bend.

But I made it to the top, albeit at my own slow pace.
My JET Programme friends who came to take part in the marathon with me (and to at least briefly elevate the foreign population of my town from its usual count: one), quickly left me in the dust. Even Scott, recovering from a cold, less genki than usual, and therefore initially my walking partner, eventually left me behind.

But my out-of-shape muscles eventually proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Groups of foreigners are majorly intimidating for the average Japanese person. Small children stare openly at us, mouths agape, as if we were zoo animals let out of our cages to mate in the wilds. But when they distinctly outnumber us, usually someone is brave enough to at least say hello or ask where I'm from.

I started up a half-English, half-Japanese conversation with some people along the way, and so managed to pass the time quite nicely. There were three boys, all about my age, who walked with their arms around each others' shoulders. The one in the middle had the soft features of Down's Syndrome or a similar disability, and his two friends were gently helping
to propel him up the hill. We talked about baseball, food, and how steep the mountain was. I taught them to walk backwards for a minute to give their muscles a rest, and gave my usual explanation of where Oregon is: between Ichiro (the Japanese member of the Seattle Mariners and a national hero here), and Disneyland. It's a rough description, but it gets the point across without needing the Japanese for "west coast" or "No, that's the other Washington."

My other new friend was a small older woman in a tan hat who immediately informed me that she was studying English as well.
She thought hard before carefully delivering her best English sentence, probably memorized from a textbook: "Would you please refill my coffee?" I complimented her prowess, and she beamed. Pair her up with those guys in the plaid shirts and they'll be perfectly prepared for life in Oregon. Although she did look a bit crestfallen when I told her about Northwest winters in my best garbled Japanese ("10-month to 4-month rain is").

She was walking up the mountain with her husband, who said little, and frequently stopped at the side of the road for cigarette breaks.
They had three children, she said, all grown, and all single. Her face showed her profound disappointment that her children (aged 31, 27, 25)
weren't married yet. She asked if I had a boyfriend (this is a typical question for foreigners and young women), and when I told her I didn't, said, "Oh, your parents maybe are sad."

I assured her that they weren't too upset about it.

At the top of the mountain, we ate miso soup and rice balls, watched the ceremonial rice pounding dance and the elementary school kids' noodle-eating contest.
(Completely unfazed by their walk/trot up the mountain, they were still happily running around and yelling as their
parents sat spent in the grass).

Opting to forgo the water bottle promised in exchange for walking another 8 km back down the mountain, we rode the bus back to the parking lot.
"Next year we'll walk down," we said, looking back up at the green mountain. "And we'll go all the way to the shrine at the top,
not just stop at the finish line."

Incredible to think that we might be here again in a year's time.
Maybe by then I will be able to read the schedule of events and not leave before the lottery. "They called your name!" the board of education staff tell me over and over today. "But you did not answer. You were
maybe already left." I wonder what I didn't win. I hope it was more radish pickles.

And if for no other reason, I'll have to come again next year just to get one of the t-shirts, with their wonderfully bizarre English slogans.
This year's proudly states, LET'S MAKE A HAPPY TOWN WITH POWER AND PRIDE.

Which, really, basically is what we did.

- October 2003