30 September 2010

Busy Work

I don't have the latest unemployment figures, but we all know they're bad.  Who would have ever thought we'd see people reach 99 weeks of unemployment?  That's three weeks shy of two years.  There is a common thought amongst the employed that laziness is the problem; that those "99-ers" could have taken a job somewhere, but just didn't want to because their unemployment benefits were "unfairly" high and discouraged them from seeking work.  I would caution anyone who feels this animosity toward the unemployed not to mistake your own good fortune for proof that you've done something right, or that someone else's misfortune is proof that they've done something wrong.  Have a little humility, folks.

And that's part of the problem.  If you buy into the idea that you're doing well because you deserve it, then when things go wrong you're faced with having to accept the dark, other side of that coin: that you deserve this, too.  Until you've actually experienced the sense of failure that comes with having to apply for government benefits, you cannot appreciate how de-valuing it is.  How empty and shamed you become.  How hard it is to even want to go anywhere for fear that someone will want to talk with you and ask the question, "What do you do?" and you'll have to answer that question.  I could elaborate, but Dawn Foster has already written an outstanding piece about the topic, and I encourage you to read it.  Go ahead; I'll wait.  (Isn't she great?)

If you've come back to me, thanks.  You already knew everything I've said so far, I'm sure.  So now let me introduce an angle I haven't heard anyone discuss.  Set aside the financial side of the unemployment mess for the moment.  You already know about how devastating it is to the families of the unemployed and how resentful the wealthy are about being taxed to pay into the system they don't personally need.  There's something I want to ask, and I'm afraid the answer isn't encouraging.

What have we, as a society, missed from all these lost jobs?  What goods or services were being provided that we really, honestly, miss?  There might be a favorite local restaurant you used to frequent with a special dish no one else offers.  I live in a town that has had at least one video rental store in business at any given time for almost 30 years.  Today, if I want to rent a movie, I have two choices: the Redbox kiosks, and my own Netflix account.  Thanks to Netflix's streaming, I've watched more movies for the first time this year than I have in ages.  I have no actual use for the now-defunct Movie Warehouse.  I feel bad that the people who owned the business had to close their doors, and I feel bad for those who drew their paychecks from the place.  But if you'd told me several years ago that if I didn't remain an active renting customer they'd be out of work, I'd have called it emotional blackmail and contrary to my own interests.

As consumers, the first thing we've done is cut down--or cut out--frivolous purchases...which means that those jobs lost provided frivolous things.  No one wants to hear it or say it, but there you have it.  The market has spoken.  Millions of Americans relied on jobs that contributed absolutely nothing of real value to our society.  And those jobs are gone, and we have only two paths before us.  We can find a way to return to our frivolous ways--though that seems shallow, now that we've adapted to our less indulgent lifestyles.  And it seems unlikely, given the attitude of the wealthy.  They're the only ones with the resources to put people back to work, and instead they not only want to keep their money circulating amongst themselves, but they've publicly fought against being taxed to help support the people they don't want to employ.

The other path before us is...actually, I have no idea what that other path is.  In science-fiction movies, they always depict a future where we've evolved beyond the frivolous and petty nature of contemporary society; we've never seen how we supposedly got from here to there.  We're going to have to navigate these uncharted waters ourselves.

24 September 2010

Because Crohn's Disease Isn't Cruel Enough...

I have a Google news alert set for "Crohn's" and nine times out of ten, the content brought to my attention are either about fundraising efforts or a local paper spotlight on a Crohnie who makes crafts or whatnot.  Today, though, was one of those instances where I received something far more chilling.  This article concerns a lawsuit filed against Sheriff David Lain of Porter County, Indiana for the death of 33 year old Alan T. Cook from Crohn's disease.

According to the report, Cook's complaints went ignored by his jailers, who placed him on a diet consisting exclusively of Gatorade.  A liquid diet is often necessary and helpful for us Crohnies, but by itself it is not enough.  The inflammation and any obstructions must be treated, with medication and/or surgery.  Jailers are not qualified to make that determination.  Readers of mine will recall my own disagreement with a gastrointestinal specialist about the proper course of treatment for me.  You can imagine, then, what I think of someone as completely unqualified as a jailer making a medical determination about a Crohnie.
"If he had gotten proper care during the three to four weeks he was first in Porter County, he probably wouldn't be dead today," said Patrick McEuen, attorney for Cook's father, Thomas Cook.
Three or four weeks of not being properly treated?!  I know within a day when I need high doses of steroids to stave off something more threatening.  I cannot fathom going three to four weeks without proper treatment.

In fairness, I don't have anything further to go on than what is in the original article.  But reading a remark like "McEuen said there's a history of Cook asking for treatment or a transfer" suggests to me, at least, that perhaps Cook was seen as a bellyaching nuisance.  Knowing some corrections employees as I do, it doesn't take much imagination to envision Cook lying doubled-over in agony and being mocked by some fat redneck with an outdated mustache.  "Whassamatter, Cook?  You gonna need a diaper?  This ain't no nursery, you whining baby; man up."

Again, I concede this is mere speculation on my part.  But I can guarantee you this: no one goes three to four weeks with a Crohn's flare without it being painfully obvious he or she needs medical treatment.  No one.  Whether Cook was marginalized because he was on the wrong side of the law, or because mainstream society has such a poor understanding of Crohn's disease (thank you, David Garrard).  And lest anyone accuse me of bandying about unsubstantiated speculations, consider the 1971 Stanford prison experiment in which a professor of psychology oversaw the simulation of a prison environment.  Within days, the "guards" had adopted an unmistakably cruel streak of authoritarianism.

I don't mean to paint all jailers and guards with the same brush, of course.  But not all jailers and guards overlooked a human being enduring the agony of a Crohn's disease flare for nearly a month, as we've been told those in Porter County elected to do.

18 September 2010

Barkeep's Jukebox: "Has Been" by William Shatner

This week, your barkeep is spinning William Shatner's 2004 album Has Been.  If you've ever wanted the definition of pop art, here it is.  Has Been is novel, but it is not a mere novelty.  So if you're planning to hop on over to Amazon and order a copy, here's what you might want to pick up at the liquor store.

"Common People" - The courting of a well-bred young woman raised in an ivory tower.  You can go one of three ways here.  You can have a rum & Coke, mentioned in the lyrics.  You can start with something swank and trendy (coming from the perspective of the young woman) or you can have something blue-collar.  If you go trendy, I'd say Hypnotiq should do the trick.  If you go blue collar, I suggest Molson Canadian.

"It Hasn't Happened Yet" - A very somber narration about a bleak winter day, reflecting about unrealized potential.  This song is the emotionally equivalent of a Newfoundland winter.  Drown your misery with Iceberg vodka; chilled and straight, or mix a screwdriver if you prefer.

"You'll Have Time" - Perhaps the greatest "live life" song ever recorded.  You'll have time to reflect on the opportunity you squandered to live it up.  Pop the cork on a bottle of expensive, impressive champagne.

"That's Me Trying" - An older guy makes a somewhat pathetic effort to reach out to his estranged middle-aged daughter.  Sometimes we forget that the best others have to offer falls short of our own standards of behavior or expectations.  Have an Old-Fashioned, but mix it with Wiser's Reserve.  It's bittersweet and has the burn from the whiskey.  Dropping in a cherry just seems insulting at this point.

"What Have You Done" - More a poem than anything else, Shatner wrote this about his wife's suicide.  It's okay to pass on a drink here, but if you want to have an Irish whisky as though you were at the wake, I think that would be appropriate.  His vocals here are outright chilling.

"Together" - Co-written with Shatner's third wife, this is a sweet-natured ode to his new love.  It's both appropriate and odd that it directly follows the song about his previous wife's suicide; we don't need to "see" the process by which he survived the darkness to find rejuvenation.  It's enough that we have a glass of wine and toast to ongoing happiness; life does go on.  I'd recommend a chilled white wine here; perhaps a pinot blanc.  Go ahead and smile when the warmth hits your cheeks.  It's okay.

"Familiar Love" - Slow-burning jazz here; Shatner celebrates the predictable behavior of his beloved, which only endears him to her after years of unstable relationships.  Drink something reliable yourself.  This sounds like an instance for a Jack Daniel's.  On the rocks, mixed with Coke, whatever makes you happy.

"Ideal Woman" - Back to some humor now; we hear how "I want you to be you"...with some nitpicking exceptions.  There's a very psychedelic groove with a vaguely Latin tinge here that just begs to be accompanied by a tequila sunrise.

"Has Been" - Set to a sound directly out of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western scores, Shatner calls out the wanna-bes and never-weres who get off on putting down people who've actually done something.  It's scathing, but fun.  You have two choices here.  You can follow that tequila sunrise from the last song with a straight shot of tequila, or you can have another whiskey-based drink.  Anything else is unacceptable.

"I Can't Get Behind That" - A stream-of-consciousness litany of pet peeves and irritants that escalates from amusement to fury.  I have absolutely no idea what to recommend here.

"Real" - Written by, and featuring, Brad Paisley, this is a song about how Shatner the person isn't Shatner the public persona (he is particularly not Captain Kirk).  It's far more humble than his famous Saturday Night Live "Get a Life!" sketch.  "Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm real."  Mr. Shatner, you've not disappointed--certainly not with this album.  I toast your creativity with a Crown Royal on the rocks.

14 September 2010

Crossing the Language Barrier

Remember that DVD Talk Criterion Collection viewing challenge I'm participating in this month?  Don't act like this is the first you've heard about it; I've seen my stats page!  Anyway, I thought I'd post some mid-month remarks about what I've gotten out of the challenge to date.  (And yes, I'm perfectly aware that the actual middle of the month isn't until tomorrow.)

I went into the challenge only owning two actual releases from the Criterion Collection: The Rock and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  I've availed myself of the titles in Netflix's streaming library, as well as the DVDs on the shelves at my local public library, to expand my viewing options for this challenge.  I've seen few foreign films in my life before this month, but in two weeks I've seen La Grande Illusion (French), Divorzio all'italiana (Italian), M (German) and Sommarnattens leende (Swedish).  I won't go into each film, but I'd like to discuss the topic of watching films with subtitles.

With La Grande Illusion, it took me about 10 minutes or so to wrap my head around the fact that the German characters were speaking in French.  Even more confusing, there are a handful of lines spoken in English, and I'm dashed if I can find a single in-story reason for these instances.  They must be artistic in nature, and I would love to know what the impetus was, since none of the characters in the film are native English speakers.

M was particularly striking; it's a German film made in 1931 about a serial child killer terrorizing a city.  After years of seeing the Germans portrayed as unsympathetic--even when they're not villains, there's a sense that they're not people for whom a non-Germanic audience should wish to identify--it was very odd to find myself actually rooting for the notorious efficiency of the German police to find this guy.  Frustrated with the side effects of the investigation, the mob resolves to conduct its own manhunt for the killer...and as someone who is opposed to the death penalty, I confess I was really hoping the mob would get to him first and exact revenge for his heinous acts.  The final act of the film?  I never saw it coming.  I won't spoil it for you, but it was astounding.

By the time I got to my fourth foreign language film, Sommarnattens leende, I must have completely adapted to the process of "reading a movie."  My Crohn's-infested guts interrupted my viewing of the film for a good 20 minutes at one point, and when I resumed viewing, I forgot to continue reading subtitles!  I'd gotten so into the movie that I was oblivious to the fact I was dependent upon reading the translation text at all.

I'm not saying each of these films is a must-see for anyone, and I understand why it can be tedious for some viewers to watch a movie not in their native tongue.  But it's certainly been an experience that I have appreciated so far, if for no other reason than this: By seeing films from various parts of the world, made in different decades, I've seen some great explorations of universal themes.  We're all human beings, and concepts like love, fear, devotion, jealousy, lust...they do not respect language barriers.  If you find yourself threatened by people speaking in a language you don't understand, I suggest you explore some foreign cinema.

You can order this print by Jaime Hernandez from Criterion.com

11 September 2010

Barkeep's Jukebox: "First Rodeo" by honeyhoney

Whiskey on the rocks!
Another Saturday, another entry in the "Barkeep's Jukebox" sub-series.  This week, I'm spotlighting honeyhoney's debut album, First Rodeo.  Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe are the two halves of this likable duo.

I recently asked them online what drinks they'd recommend for each song, and they responded:

"attach whiskey on the rocks to all of em… That should hit the spot.. ;)"

So, I figured that what I'd do is pick out a specific whiskey for each song.  Here goes!

"Black Crows" - "Some days are better than most," Suzanne intones.  Hopefully, you're chillin' with this album on one of the better days. Get it started with something familiar like Jim Beam (white label).

"Little Toy Gun" - The country vibe here calls for something like Southern Comfort...which is as much a double-entendre as the song itself.

"Sugarcane" - A relationship going bad calls for something a shade bittersweet.  I suggest Crown Royal, a Canadian whisky with a sweet flavor...but enough burn to say "goodbye."

"Not for Long" - "Maybe you're a light that won't turn on/but not for long" - We're trying to feel better now.  Pour yourself some George Dickel, a very smooth Tennessee sippin' whiskey.  Things are gonna be alright.

"Bouncing Ball" - Melancholy.  Listless.  Looking for some hope and guidance now.  Go up a shelf and pour some Old Forrester birthday edition.

"Come on Home" - An acoustic, bluesy cut imploring a lover to come home.  We know he won't.  Pour a Jim Beam (black label) and relish the vanilla and oak--they're the only reminders of home you're gonna have in your loneliness.

Give yourself to this.
Or Suzanne Santo.
"Give Yourself to Me" - An urgent, much-needed surrendering to lust.  Go with Maker's Mark.  There might be a wax play joke in here somewhere.

"David" - "It's alright, David, I'm fucked up again" the song begins.  This is vulnerability without self-consciousness.  The kind of honesty that comes from being done with all the game-playing and drama.  No party drink here.  Pour an Old Grand-Dad and just let yourself hate it.

"Slow Brains" - This one is almost a stream of consciousness.  I'd recommend Early Times.  It's kind of a loose, meandering bourbon ready to go wherever your slow brains want.

"Under the Willow Tree" - A song about how dreams and life aren't always on speaking terms.  This one's pretty morbid, actually.  Go to the top shelf and pour some Booker's.  It'll take the varnish off a tabletop; surely it's an appropriate fit here.

"Oh Mama" - We've already poured eight damn drinks this far into an album with a total run time of barely half an hour.  I don't know if it matters what you pour by now, but it occurs to me we've not had any Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 yet.  Now's as good a time as any.

Nine Years Later

There's this moment in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where the two contemplate joining the military as a career change, to go fight in the Spanish-American War.  "Remember the Maine," Butch suggests.  A jaded Sundance retorts, "Who can forget it?"

That's about how I've felt these nine years since a handful of misguided and warped Islamic extremists took control of not only a few airplanes, but seemingly our entire planet.  I have no interest here in discussing how prepared our government should have been for the attacks and I'm not interested in pointing fingers or exploring conspiracy theories.  It happened.  We all saw it happen, and we've each of us had to adapt to living in a world where it happened.

For most of us, it's really more of an abstract reaction.  I've been saddened, angered, frightened, and had my various opinions about different aspects of the causes and effects of the attack.  Some of us have had far greater consequences with which to live, and I have often wondered just how much solace the orphans who lost their parents that day have found in assorted "We Will Never Forget" bumper stickers.  Maybe it's been a daily reminder that other people care about what happened to them; maybe they see it as a very crass way that their personal Hell has been co-opted by a marketing department.  I can't say; I'm one of the blessed ones who lost no one that day.

It's always irked me, personally, to hear that day referred to as "9/11."  I keep thinking that, had our Founding Fathers been so lazy, we would celebrate "7/4" instead of "The Fourth of July" as our Independence Day.  I see on this year's calendar that we're now calling this "Patriot Day."  I don't know when that made its way to the calendar pages and I don't really care.  I suppose it's a step up from "9/11," but it sounds like just another excuse for mattress discount sales to me.  But then, the word "patriot" has always made me uncomfortable; I've heard it most commonly bandied about by people with some very absolute ideas about what the word means.

I'll never forget the next day, I was at work and I heard helicopters in the air.  You young kids may not remember this, but the Federal Aviation Authority grounded all air traffic for a few days, so we had this very eerie period where nothing was airborne.  I stepped outside and saw three low-flying military choppers go overhead.  gunners sat with their legs dangling over the side, straddling their weapons.  Were they patrolling?  Transferring from one local base to another?  Test driving the equipment?  I have no idea, but I do recall smiling at the sight and feeling the chill down my spine that returns every time I think about the image--including now, as I type this.

I was also proud of country music that Fall.  Who will forget the finale of "America: A Tribute to Heroes" with Willie Nelson leading an entire stage full of celebrities through the entirety of "America the Beautiful?"  And who else could it have been but Willie, the very personification of calm and idealism that represents the best our society has to offer the world?  Willie's the very image of perseverance; when he came on stage and warbled his way through "America the Beautiful," it was more than a star-studded performance.  It was comfort incarnate.

We've all heard Alan Jackon's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," and I recall vividly being mesmerized by the live debut of the song during the CMA Awards broadcast.  Leave it to the guy who was "just a singer of simple songs" to find the most basic level of humanity in such an overwhelming event.  It gave me hope.

Often forgotten, though, was the Country Freedom Concert, which aired before the CMAs that year.  It began with (as I recall) Jackson and George Strait agreeing by week's end to perform a fundraiser concert for the Red Cross.  As soon as word got out that's what they were planning, every country artist who wasn't already committed to being somewhere else volunteered to participate.  The show-stopper (for me, anyway) was Hank Williams, Jr.  Charlie Daniels Band had been told not to perform their newly minted song, "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag" because it was so aggressive.  (Personally, I just thought it was a weak song; the kind of thing you might come up with screwing around with your buddies but not something you actually record and market for sale, but that's just me.)

Anyway, out came Bocephus and he re-tooled "A Country Boy Can Survive" to "America Will Survive."  And what really struck me--and made me applaud--was that the original song really played on anxieties and suggested violence as the only recourse.  And yet, in the 2001 incarnation, I heard the line, "'cause we're the boys raised on freedom and fun" in lieu of being raised "on old shotguns."  Alan Jackson found the humanity in the atrocity, but Hank, Jr. helped us find some much-needed swagger without going too far with it.

In the years since, however, I'm sorry to say that country music hasn't bothered to be nearly as thoughtful.  Name-checking the military at all is sufficient for cheap applause from an audience (I'm looking at you, Zac Brown Band).  I'm sure the artists and fans of such one-dimensional songs feel they're "genuine, and if that's how they feel then so be it.  All I know is that in the last nine years, I've lost track of the military-centric songs of mainstream country...and can count on one hand the ones I thought were thoughtful and actually paid sincere respect for the men and women in uniform.  The rest are little more than ditties constructed by and for armchair warriors, for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been little more than reality TV.  But I digress; I'm trying to avoid the negative here today.

Here's a fun anecdote I thought I'd share.  It's no secret I'm a Batman junkie and a fan of listening to DVD commentary tracks.  Anyway, Kevin Conroy shared this story on the commentary track to Batman: Gotham Knight.  He called around and asked what he could do to help, and they said they needed help with the soup kitchen, feeding the rescue workers.  Conroy quipped that, being an actor, he had done plenty of restaurant service and reported for duty.  Anyway, it came out in conversation that he was in fact the voice of Batman in the animated series and features dating back to 1992.  This got some buzz going and he said he finally broke down and did the Batman voice for the rescue workers which he said really seemed to cheer them up, because they broke out in applause.  Conroy was clearly humbled by the response; even discussing it years later on that DVD he's clearly just sharing a special moment of his own life with us the audience rather than any kind of shameless boasting.  Sometimes we forget how important the little things can be in life, like hearing the voice of Batman while recuperating from searching for survivors was for those selfless men and women.

Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman
As for me, I've said about all I really feel compelled to say on the subject this year.  Maybe next year I'll have something inspiring to share, or at least something cohesive.  It's hard, though, when entire shelves of books on a given subject by far more qualified people than me have already been published.  I suppose, if there's one thing to appreciate today, it's that life goes on.  It's been much easier for a lot of us than it has been for others, and we owe it to those who lost their loved ones not to elevate our own reactions to that god-awful day to the same level they've endured.

04 September 2010

Barkeep's Jukebox: "The List" by Rosanne Cash

This album is for drinkers.
The List by Rosanne Cash

Welcome to the second installment in the "Barkeep's Jukebox" sub-series.  This weekend, we turn our attention to Rosanne Cash's 2009 release The List.  I won't bore you with the oft-repeated origin of the album, but what matters is that this is a collection of songs from various eras.  Cash's husband and album producer, John Leventhal, brought a unifying aesthetic to the twelve songs with his arrangements.  Here we go!

"Miss the Mississippi and You" - Cash's wistful vocals and an almost lazy sounding accompaniment wish they could return to the comfort of Mississippi.  There's a jazz-like sound here that calls out for a light wine.  A pinot noir, or perhaps a pinot grigio, I should think.

"Motherless Children" - Yeah, we're not in white wine territory anymore.  The sound of the song is as ominous as its lyrics.  We're told how various family members will try to replace a mother, but come up short.  There's something about the coldness of Cash's vocals here that make me think: vodka.  And not in some kind of fruity concoction; pour a highball of chilled vodka over ice.  Let it burn.

"Sea of Heartbreak" (featuring Bruce Springsteen) - When Jimmy Buffett and George Strait covered this, it made me want rum.  Cash and The Boss, though, make it forlorn.  This is the kind of regret that can only come from someone screwing up something special.  Complete the bittersweetness with a flute of champagne.  It should be bubbly...like the love that used to be.

"Take These Chains from My Heart" - The lyrics tell of a relationship that's already died, but keeps going.  Thankfully, after the previous two songs, the arrangement favors optimism; the emphasis here is on being set free.  Have a mint julep.  The bourbon is to the "chains" as the minty-ness is to the hopeful outlook.

"I'm Movin' On" - Sultry.  Absolutely just...smoldering with humidity.  This arrangement kills me every time I hear it.  You shouldn't mix drinking and driving, of course, but it's okay to mix drinking and songs about driving off.  Pour a smooth, Tennessee sippin' whiskey.  I suggest George Dickel.  And go ahead and light up a Montecristo No. 2 while you're at it.  Let your temples tingle.

"Heartaches by the Number" (featuring Elvis Costello) - Ah, the ups and downs of an on-again/off-again relationship.  The acoustic, pleasant arrangement makes this more of a sing-along than the rest of the album.  It's okay to have something a little more whimsical here, like a mojito.

"500 Miles" - My God, this is depressing.  Cash sounds fatigued by emotion here, befitting the song about being away from home.  I really don't know that there is a drink to go with this song, but perhaps this is the time to have a darker, stout beer like a Guinness?

"Long Black Veil" (featuring Jeff Tweedy) - Originally composed for a male singer, this is a story song about a wrongfully convicted and executed narrator who wouldn't expose his affair with his best friend's wife as his true whereabouts.  It never quite takes on a lesbian subtext, despite the lyrics not being adapted for the feminine Cash.  Because of this, it's got more of a folksy, around-the-campfire feel.  I hate to tell you to have another beer, but that's what I'm feeling here.  Drinker's preference is fine.

"She's Got You" - The Other Woman won, and we're privy to the inner thoughts of the loser.  This calls for something not very elaborate.  A simple, red wine.  I'd go with a merlot (The Little Penguin was a favorite of mine before my guts stopped allowing it).  Go ahead; finish the bottle.  It's a long, long night of misery.

"Girl from the North Country" - This song feels as cold as the "howling wind" of the North Country where a "true love of mine" still is.  Enjoy a White Russian here.  When properly mixed, it's the kind of light-tasting drink that evokes a small grin.  Just like the kind a person has when they see the light at the end of a dark tunnel.

"Silver Wings" (featuring Rufus Wainwright) - Here, Cash pleads with a lover not to get aboard an outbound flight that will take him away from her.  Is there anything sadder than watching someone you love leave?  Pour a shot of tequila.  No salt, no lime.  Just soul-deadening burn.

"Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow" - How dark is this?  Our intrepid narrator lets us know she wants to be buried under a prominent weeping willow tree...so that her ex-husband might be able to find her and feel some sadness once she's gone.  There's a desperation here and it's hard to say which kind of alcohol best suits it.  Err on the side of caution and mix a Long Island Iced Tea.