27 April 2011

The All-American Kryptonian

This morning, as President Barack Obama made public his long form certificate of live birth, Superman renounced his U.S. citizenship.  No, really.  In a story written by David S. Goyer published in Action Comics #900 that went on sale today, the Man of Steel declares:

Superman was created by two Jewish boys who grew up amongst the Great Depression.  Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw Superman as an agent operating outside the law to combat injustice from underhanded businessmen exploiting the working class and poor to politicians whom the law would not touch.  This theme was continued in The Adventures of Superman radio show.  The show's liberal politics led Gerald L.K. Smith to declare, "Superman is a disgrace to America."  From 16 April until 20 May 1946 in a serialized story titled, "The Hate Mongers Organization," Superman took on the Ku Klux Klan.  The show's writers were armed with inside information provided by an investigative reporter named Stetson Kennedy, who had infiltrated the Klan.

Nazis, Neo-Nazis; Superman fought 'em all.
Interestingly, it was The Adventures of Superman radio show that first introduced the idea of Superman fighting for "truth, justice and the American way."  It may be difficult to imagine such a concept today, when it seems the liberals who huff and puff the loudest eventually disparage America as a backward realm of intolerance, but Superman rejected that cynicism.  Rather, the show's writers staked the claim that opposing injustice, corruption and evil-doers was defending America.  Their Superman was an agent of change, thwarting one nefarious plot after another.  The point of being Superman was to use his might to force us to live up to our own ideals, rather than to impose his will on us.

In the 1950s, amidst the McCarthy Senate hearings and anti-Communist paranoia, Superman was presented as more of a part of Americana.  The Adventures of Superman television series starring George Reeves gave us a Superman who existed primarily to lend a helping hand and break up criminal plots by gangsters.  Rather than challenge the KKK and expose corrupt politicians, this was a Superman who paid a visit to Lucy and promoted the United States Treasury Department [see: Stamp Day for Superman].  Superman had effectively become a symbol of Americana and co-opted by conservatives as the defender of their ideals (despite the fact that Superman had opposed them in the beginning).  This earnest dedication to "traditional values" was the core of the live action Superman movie series begun in 1978's Superman.

Superman = America
In 1986's The Dark Knight Returns comic book mini-series, Frank Miller carried out this Americana Superman to an extreme.  Dark Knight depicts a future in which the federal government has cracked down on superheroes and forced them all into retirement...save Superman, who is simply too powerful to stop.  Instead, he is a fully authorized federal agent operating under orders direct from President Ronald Reagan, effectively making the Man of Steel an enforcer at the disposal of the White House.

President Reagan has the next best
thing to God on his side: Superman.
Twenty years later, "the American way" was omitted from dialog in Superman Returns, a film that explores how Superman would be received in our contemporary world after years of having been away.  When asked about that, director Bryan Singer said:
Americans are the first people to be weirdly simultaneously patriotic and self-criticizing. It's one of our rights as Americans. We can do that. With that notion, I didn't have a better way to take the edge off it so I did it that way. But, he is an American superhero. There's no denying that. He's the ultimate immigrant, raised on a farm in Kansas. He represents what we as Americans idealistic want to be. In that way I shy away from it, but I don't know how to. But, he's not just fighting for America. He's fighting for, you know, the world. He always was. So it's not shying away from it, it's just treating it in not a better way, but a different way. I couldn't measure up to how they treated it. 
The idea of Superman being a global character was nothing new; as his powers had evolved from being "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" to being able to fly into outer space without so much as an oxygen tank, it made little sense to confine Superman to the United States.  He was raised here, and infused with the most noble of our ideals, and in that he is American.

What Does Action Comics #900 Signify?

Firstly, we need to be clear.  Superman is not repudiating the United States.  Rather, he is arguing that he is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man non-governmental organization (NGO).  This renouncement of citizenship is to take a stand to guard against becoming the pawn that Miller projected in 1986.  This is a Superman who is declaring that his motivations and values are his own, that he does not wish to be perceived by the rest of the world as an agent of the U.S.

Secondly, it seems to me that this action is intended to restore Superman to his initial values as a character beholden to no law or political agenda, but rather one who operates outside official channels to champion the values instilled in him by a morally grounded, fair-minded pair of Kansan farmers.

What I fear, though, is that this is a misguided backlash against the distorted ideas of patriotism that have dominated our political discourse for the last decade.  It's as though Superman--or, rather, his writers and editors--have had enough of our litmus tests for who is a "real" American.  I personally identify strongly with that frustration, but I don't believe renouncing his citizenship is the appropriate course of action.  I personally would rather see the DC Comics editorial team adopt the values of the writers of the radio show, who insisted that their values were American.  In his attempt to rise above partisanship, it seems that Superman has allowed himself to become a victim of the "Love it or leave it" power play.  I would have much rather seen a Superman who stood up and fought for an America in which we either love it or work to improve it.

Going forward, it's worth noting that David S. Goyer, who wrote the renouncement story, is writing the next Superman film, The Man of Steel, to be directed by Zack Snyder and produced by Christopher Nolan.

26 April 2011

I Am Selfishly Destroying America

I recently signed an online petition pleading for Congress to spare funding for medical research.  Unfortunately for me, I'm represented in the United States Senate by Rand Paul.  I just received the following e-mail, dated today (26 April 2011):

Dear Mr. McClain,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this issue.
As a subgroup of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), NIH is the focal point for federal biological and behavioral health research. As a doctor, I care about medical research and know from experience the best way to improve care is for the government to step away from the problem and allow for private investment to flourish.  The size of the national debt has grown considerably over the past few years.  We have seen currencies and countries fall under their unsustainable debt. 
In order to get our fiscal house in order and prevent potential catastrophe in this country, everyone will have to be willing to make sacrifices in sacred programs.  All areas of the budget should be on the table for consideration, and while I am not willing to compromise on whether or not cuts should be made, I am willing to compromise on which cuts should be made. 
It is time for our nation to address its fiscal problems, and it is the duty of lawmakers to introduce responsible legislation that will rein in spending.  Just as American households must balance their checkbooks, the federal government should do the same.  Rest assured as this issue continues to be debated in the Senate, I will keep your thoughts in mind. 


Rand Paul, MD
United States Senator
This came as no surprise, of course, but I do want to address two of the Senator's remarks.
 "As a doctor, I care about medical research and know from experience the best way to improve care is for the government to step away from the problem and allow for private investment to flourish."
Firstly, I'm a patient and I guarantee you I care even more about improving my care than any doctor I've ever had.  That's not meant to be a knock on physicians, either.  I've had several who were compassionate and appeared to genuinely be concerned with my well-being.  Empathy is important, for many reasons, but it cannot compensate for not being the one suffering.

Secondly, Senator Paul continues to worship at the altar of the free market and he should know better.  Breakthroughs don't happen daily.  They take years of highly skilled, dedicated people using elaborate, highly expensive equipment to find the tiniest new revelation, which can then take years to be fully understood.  Shareholders live and die by quarterly statements, and aren't convinced that such longterm research developments are "good business."  This is why the moment their scientists devise anything, they want to fast track it to production.  The Federal Drug Administration under President George W. Bush complied and became little more than a formality, and in consequence, we've seen countless drugs recalled because they were pushed onto the market before they were fully understood in an effort to make as quick a turnaround on the investment as possible.  Patience is mandatory for something like medical research, and unfortunately the investment world is rarely able to understand that it may not make a fortune off treating illnesses today or even tomorrow.  Government has a clear responsibility to promote the well-being of our people, and there is clearly a proper role for it to play in medical research. To act as though government spending is some kind of hindrance to private companies curing all disease is ludicrous.

Lastly, as millions of Americans can attest, if you have a health condition that isn't widespread and doesn't have countless celebrities raising awareness (and funds) for it, the "free market" declares there's not enough "demand" for the product/service to justify producing a supply.  Lance Armstrong will personally see to it that every human being he ever meets is made to feel enough guilt they donate their life savings to cancer research, but who's out there for me?  David Garrard, who made it seem like I just needed to take some meds and then I, too, could be playing pro ball?

Simply put, there is no free market-based answer to the issue of medical research.  We Crohnies may not be a large enough group that a business decides it's profitable to invest in finding a cure for us, but that doesn't mean we don't still need one.  In fact, evidence already suggests that shunning us altogether is in the interest of businesses, as we make costly--and unreliable--employees (remember the findings published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine from 2009?).  In short, we're a group that the free market doesn't want as laborers, nor are we a desirable customer to be wooed.  Leave us solely at the mercy of the free market, and we will surely never see any further progress on our behalf.

The second statement I wish to address is:
"In order to get our fiscal house in order and prevent potential catastrophe in this country, everyone will have to be willing to make sacrifices in sacred programs."
The implication here is that I'm a selfish narcissistic bastard for pleading that funding for medical research not be scrapped.  I wonder, if Senator Paul is serious about "getting our fiscal house in order" as he says, whether the tax cuts he's in love with are on the table.  Or subsidies to Big Oil.  I suspect not.  Those, after all, are so sacred that we dare not sacrifice those.  I mean, asking those who are obscenely well-off to pay slightly higher taxes than the lowest tax rate America since World War II would be criminal, and asking Big Oil to fend for itself in the free market would be government overreach.  Or something.  I don't know.

25 April 2011

Ninth Grade Insurrection

In "A Study in Scarlet," Dr. Watson is introduced to Sherlock Holmes.  The latter stuns the former by declaring a prideful ignorance of many key subjects, among them politics and history.  They mean literally nothing to the famed detective.  That's largely how I felt about science classes.  I understood they were important to other people, and I readily accepted that I had benefited from scientific endeavors undertaken by inquisitive people I would never meet.  The social sciences (history, political science, sociology); these made sense to me, because they were about people.  I couldn't care less which critter belonged to which phylum, nor did I care about the chemical composition of salt.  It was enough for me that other people knew these things and had a use for them.  Still, I soldiered on as best I could, feigning interest when addressed by my teachers and trying to go through the motions.

The third class of my day during my freshman year was Interdisciplinary Science.  One day near the middle of the school year (I recall wearing a heavy jacket), we had a test that included a lab assignment.  Only a few work stations were set up for us, meaning that we went in waves of small groups to the sinks.  Eventually, it was my turn.  I cannot tell you now what the specific requirements or objectives of the test were, but they involved using plastic pipettes to transfer X mL of liquids A and B.  Now, as it happens, my hands shake.  They have since as far back as I can recall.  There's a psychological component to it, which I know because the more conscious I am about needing my hands to be steady, the worse the shaking becomes.  I can do nothing about it.

It took little time for me to become demonstratively frustrated with my inability to transfer the specific, minuscule volume of liquids.  How did my teacher respond?  She accused me of putting on a show for my classmates and ordered me to clean my materials for someone else to use, and informed me I had failed the lab portion of the test.  I tried to appeal her summary judgment against me, but of course she was the teacher and I was now the unruly, disruptive student.  I saw it was hopeless and went about cleaning my materials as directed.  After a minute, though, I was further charged with drawing out the cleaning process as part of my alleged sideshow display.  I am by nature a thorough person, and I'm certain many of my former coworkers can attest to this.  I was habitually the last to leave each night because I was not content to gloss over my cleaning tasks.  I abandoned the incompletely cleaned materials altogether and took my seat, dejected and frustrated.

The bane of my shaking hands's existence.
The next day, our teacher began class with a random "book check," where we were required to verify that our textbooks were present.  I did not have my book with me, which came to light when she reached my place on our alphabetized roster.  Here is the exact dialog of our exchange.
Teacher: Travis, where is your book?
Me: I deliberately left it at home.
Teacher: "Deliberately?"
Me: Deliberately.
Teacher: May I ask why?
Me: I find this class to be excruciatingly dull.
Teacher: I'll see you outside.  Go now.

I've never seen the resemblance.
As on the previous day, I did as I was instructed.  I rose from my seat and exited the classroom.  How long I was in the hallway, I cannot say but I know it was long enough for me to count every ceiling tile within my field of vision from one end of the building to the next.  Eventually, my teacher emerged, along with two of my classmates.  One apparently endorsed my show of defiance and yelled, "Go, Beaker!"  (For whatever reason, he insisted I reminded him of the Muppet, and took to calling me by that name.)  To this day, I cannot tell you what the other classmate did to earn his ejection.

We were directed to the office of the vice principal.  He was a dour looking toad of a man, I thought.  I hadn't read LeCarre then, but if I had I may easily have thought he fit the description of George Smiley given in Call for the Dead.  I had never really spoken with him; this was, after all, still the middle of my freshman year and disciplinary issues were wholly unknown to me.  My turn came and I sat across his desk.  He politely asked me if I would tell him my side of the incident.  I started at the beginning--what I perceived to be the injustice of the previous day.  I conceded that my outburst may not have been the most helpful or appropriate reaction, but I pressed the point that my efforts to explain myself during the test had been dismissed out of hand.  If reason and fairness were not allowed in the classroom, I was left choosing between subservient acquiescence and an act of defiance.

The vice principal then asked me, "Are you religious?"  The query caught me unawares; I'd not anticipated matters of faith entering a conversation with a school official.  I replied that I was more spiritual than religious, that I had some beliefs but I wasn't a practicing member of any organized congregation.  "Well, let me ask you this: are you familiar with the Golden Rule?"  I replied that I was.  "Would you tell me what it is?"  I replied,

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

He nodded.  "Right.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," he repeated.  "Not, 'Do unto others as they have done unto you'."  I'm sure other people may have balked at this whole line of discussion, and may even now be irate reading about it here.  I, however, recognized it as an offering from him.  He recognized that I had a legitimate reason for my disdain, but of course he could not condone what I'd done with my energy.  I was intrigued by the philosophical nature of our interview, and I inquired how society would ever address the disrespectful if no one was ever treated with the rudeness they dispensed.  That, I was told, was where faith came into it.  You just have to trust that these things have a way of working themselves out.  I wasn't sold on it, but I could tell he was entirely earnest about his beliefs.  Even when I disagree with someone's values, I can respect them if they're sincerely felt and put to me in a reasonable manner.  I felt his had been, and I told him I would consider the point.

In consequence for my disruption of class, I was assigned one school day in Time Out.  I was to spend the entire day in silence with a few other students in a room the size of a motel shower.  I did it, without raising a single objection or making any attempt to test the conditions of the punishment.  It was how I would get square with things, I reasoned.  The day after my stint in Time Out, my science teacher approached me before class began.  She apologized to me for being so abrupt with me over the test and while I could tell she didn't want to have to say this to me, the fact was, she had done it.  There can be no doubt the apology had been ordered by the vice principal.  I appreciated that he had made that effort on my behalf; he could easily have taken her side entirely and ignored me as she had done.  I accepted her apology, feeling that I owed it to the vice principal to do so.  Whether I apologized for my actions, I cannot say.  I have the vague memory that my teacher made a remark that she considered the matter resolved since I'd spent the day in Time Out atoning for my protest.  Regardless, even though I no longer held any respect for her and I'm sure she was just grateful that we were nearing the end of the year and she would soon be rid of me, we did bury the hatchet.  Not an antagonistic word was exchanged between us the remainder of the year.

24 April 2011

"Batman and Robin" The Complete 1949 Movie Serial Collection

Batman and Robin - The Complete 1949 Movie Serial Collection
Starring: Robert Lowery, John Duncan, Jane Adams, Lyle Talbot
Written for the Screen by George H. Plympton & Joseph E. Poland & Royal K. Cole
Produced by Sam Katzman
Directed by Spencer Bennet
DVD Release: 22 March 2005
List Price: $14.94
261 Minutes

Batman (Lowery) and Robin (Duncan) are plagued by The Wizard, a mysterious villain in control of a gang of criminals who do his bidding.  The Wizard takes possession of a powerful new weapon capable of controlling cars, trains and airplanes and begins using this weapon in a series of extortion schemes.  Complicating matters is radio broadcaster Barry Brown, who seems to broadcast inside information about events the moment they've happened; private investigator Dunne, who finds himself at all the right places at all the right times; Vicki Vale, who spends as much energy trying to find out Batman's real identity as she does being captured by the Wizard's thugs.

This is the second and final Batman serial, released in 1949 in the twilight of the serial format.  The budget was obviously low; sets, costumes, effects and stunts are all pretty crude.  Like many Batman screen adventures, this one doesn't seem to know whether to take itself seriously or bask in silliness.  The actors play it straight, but the plot is full of "WTF" moments.  It's easy to appreciate how Hugh Hefner screening this years later at the Playboy Mansion, along with the 1943 Batman serial, helped generate the interest in the character that led to William Dozier developing the 1966 TV series.  There's plenty of "Batman and Robin to the rescue!" action, and some laughs along the way.

I'd be lying if I said I was wholly satisfied with the serial.  I can overlook the poor budget and I'm fine with the tone.  But there are some developments in the final two chapters that arouse immediate attention with the viewer that are never addressed on-screen.  I'm not into spoilers, but I will say that one story element defies a point that is made repeatedly throughout the serial, and it is bothersome to see the flagrant ignorance of the protagonists, as the violation occurs right before their very eyes.

I've read a few early Batman comics, and it's my impression that Batman and Robin did a pretty good job capturing the actual feel of what Bob Kane and his collaborators (chiefly Bill Finger) had been producing in the pages of Batman and Detective Comics.  Younger viewers may become impatient or lose their interest; there's no colorful supervillain here like the Joker or Riddler.  For fans of the Golden Age, though, I think they'll find Batman and Robin a real treat.

As for the DVD presentation, the quality is as good as I suspect it will ever be for this.  There are some instances of white noise, but they're minimal and to be expected.  The sound was very clear; I don't recall anything distracting.  Disappointingly, there are no bonus features save a trio of previews (for DVD releases of Spider-Man 2, Hellboy and an assortment of 1970s police/detective TV shows).  The serials are generally glossed over in documentaries about Batman and his screen career, and it would have been nice to hear about the production and see Batman and Robin placed in its proper context.  Apparently, Columbia had enough hope in 2005 when they released this DVD collection that they could cash in on Batman Begins, but not enough confidence to invest in the project beyond remastering in in High Definition.

22 April 2011

Legends of the Gipper: At Windsor Castle

In lieu of the forthcoming royal wedding I thought it time to share an anecdote about an incident when President Ronald Reagan paid a visit to Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II (I trust my British readers to correct me should I have botched her formal title).  Credit for this one goes to Work Hard, Study...and Stay Out of Politics! Adventures and Lessons Learned from an Unexpected Public Life by James A. Baker, III.  Baker served as Mr. Reagan's Chief of Staff and later as Secretary of the Treasury, as well as Secretary of State for President George H.W. Bush.

Photo taken 8 June 1982 by Michael Evans, Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library.
The president was visiting Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle.  Like him, she was an avid and accomplished rider, so the staffs arranged for a horseback tour of the grounds.  After the obligatory photo-op, the monarch and the president road away, the queen in front.  A few minutes later, however, Her Highness's poor steed--suffering perhaps from a bad batch of oats--began to expel gas in a remarkably rhythmic way with each step, step, step across the English countryside.
Elizabeth the Second--by the grace of God, the queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and her other realms and territories, head of the commonwealth, and defender of the faith--was suitably mortified.  "Oh, dear, Mr. President," she said, "I'm so sorry."
"Quite all right, Your Majesty," the president replied.  "I thought it was the horse."
Kinda chips away at the image of austerity to which we're accustomed when it comes to the royal family, doesn't it?  You can read my review of Work Hard, Study...and Stay Out of Politics! for more thoughts on the former Secretary's recollections.  Also, if you would like to order a print of the above photograph from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library you can place your request by visiting the photo archive page here.  The order form asks for the photo catalog number and date; the photograph shown here is C8454-18 and was taken 6/8/82.

13 April 2011

Playlist: Middle School Years

The second in a series of playlists based on different eras of my life, The Middle School Years spans from 1990-1993.  It's a shorter period of time than The Childhood Years, but it was a distinct time of my life.  There were some really cool things for me in those years.  I've already addressed my early bouts with depression during those years, so I'm going to focus here on the memories captured by these songs.  I listened to a lot of movie soundtracks during this period, as you'll see.  One note: I really should have included the "Star Trek VI Suite" from Cliff Eidelman's score for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, as I love the music and it was that movie that led to me becoming a Trekker.  It's kinda long, though, and I elected to instead include some other Star Trek soundtrack pieces for reasons described below.

"T-U-R-T-L-E Power" by Partners in Kryme - This is from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie.  Technically, I think the movie opened just at the tail end of my fifth grade year, but I had the soundtrack on cassette and later the movie on VHS and I played both with regularity.  This was really the first time I recall making a point of letting the end credits for a movie play out, just so I could hear "T-U-R-T-L-E Power."

"U Can't Touch This" by M.C. Hammer - I love M.C. Hammer.  I've already written about how thrilled I was to cajole my dad into buying Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em for me on cassette for either my birthday or Christmas in 1990.  Driving home from visiting a friend a few nights ago, we had the radio on in the car and they played this song.  It was just as thrilling as it was 21 years ago.

"Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen - Yes, this song was released before I went to middle school, but I was introduced to it in Wayne's World.  I still love to watch that movie and see their sing-along in the car.

"House Arrest" by Bryan Adams - Like many people of my generation, I owned Bryan Adams's Waking Up the Neighbours album (to this day, a favorite of mine).  This was always a fun song.  I don't know if it was ever a single, but I dig it.

"Market Street" Composed by Leonard Rosenman - From the Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home soundtrack album.  I know a lot of Trekkers think lowly of Rosenman's score but I like the jazzy feel of this piece.  This was the first song I put on the chopping block when I tried to make room for "Star Trek VI Suite," but then I remembered hanging out with a neighbor (who ceased being a friend in high school) and how enthusiastically he talked about enjoying this composition, largely because unless you knew where it came from, it would be almost impossible to guess it was from a Star Trek score.

"Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice - Like the moment you saw "U Can't Touch This" you didn't immediately think of this song.  It was huge, then it became a punchline, and now it exists somewhere in the realm of nostalgia or "irony."  Whatever.  I can't imagine a playlist based on my middle school years that doesn't include "Ice Ice Baby."

"Dick Tracy" by Ice-T - I listened to a lot of soundtracks during my middle school years.  I loved the music for Dick Tracy, from Danny Elfman's score to the Madonna songs penned by Stephen Sondheim and the new recordings created as source music meant to recreate the 30s.  I could have picked any number of songs from the three soundtrack albums to the movie, but I went with this.

"Jimmy Olsen's Blues" by Spin Doctors - A friend of mine introduced me to the Spin Doctors's debut album, knowing that I'd begun reading Superman comics around that time.  (I won't lie: I started reading when I heard they were going to kill the Man of Steel.)  On that level, I loved this song.  On another level, Pocket Full of Kryptonite was a terrific album that I still love.  It makes me think of my friend as much as the enjoyment I got from Superman.

"Batman: The Animated Series" Main Title Composed by Danny Elfman - I can still remember how excited I was to learn that there would be a Batman cartoon in the fall of 1992.  This show was awesome, and I couldn't get enough of it.  I loved the character designs, and the writing blew me away.  I still remember talking about the show nonstop with classmates in art class.

"The Thunder Rolls (Live Version)" by Garth Brooks - I'll never forget the night that NBC aired This Is Garth Brooks!  It was a Friday night and my brother and I were at our dad's.  The three of us sat in the living room, watching that special.  It was one of the few times I could think of that we were all watching and enjoying the same thing.  I had quit liking country music altogether by this point, but Garth was an entertainer the likes of which I'd never before seen.  The extended version of "The Thunder Rolls" was jaw-dropping, and a standout moment in that concert.  This recording is from that special.  It was released on a CD single to radio stations (along with the live version of "Friends in Low Places") and about 10 years ago I snagged one of those CD singles off eBay.

"The Mountain" Composed by Jerry Goldsmith - From Goldsmith's score for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  I picked this because the post-title music is lovely, and because Star Trek V was the first CD I ever owned.  I got my first CD player for Christmas 1991.

"Face to Face" by Siouxsie & The Banshees - From Batman Returns.  It's got an eerie sound that I always enjoyed.

"Ninja Rap" by Vanilla Ice - I really could have just included this to represent both Vanilla Ice and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but both dominated 1991 for me.  This is really awful stuff, but I loved it.

"Hanky Panky (Bare Bones Single Mix)" by Madonna - Remember when I said I loved all the music from the Dick Tracy soundtracks?  I loved it so much I even bought the CD single of "Hanky Panky."  This is the epitome of "guilty pleasure."

"(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" by Bryan Adams - You didn't really think "House Arrest" was the only way Bryan Adams was going to be represented here, did you?  This song is the whole reason I ever bought Waking Up the Neighbours.  I loved Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (still do) and this song is killer.  I still get upset when I think about how "Beauty and the Beast" stole this song's Academy Award.

"Addams Groove" by M.C. Hammer - This song was really the last hit that M.C. Hammer had, coming shortly after "Too Legit to Quit."  I remember going to see The Addams Family at the Loews theater inside River Falls Mall.  Have I mentioned that I listened to a lot of soundtracks in middle school?

"Toot Toot Tootsie" by Brent Spiner - Yeah, like I could resist buying a CD of Data singing.  It turns out that Spiner ain't half bad.  I remember very clearly we went on a class field trip to Mammoth Cave in middle school and I took my Discman and this was one of the CDs I had with me to listen to on the way.  It was pretty nice, just sitting in the dark of night on a quiet bus with Spiner singing.  Not that it's relevant to the song, but the school had chartered buses so they were far more comfortable than regular school buses.  Also, we didn't get to actually go to Mammoth Cave.  Once we arrived, we learned it was closed to the public because it had flooded from rain the night before.

"Cool as Ice (Everybody Get Loose)" by Vanilla Ice featuring Naomi Campbell - Vanilla Ice starring in a movie?  You better believe I had to see that!  I remember going to see Cool as Ice at the J'Town Four theater; the first run theaters wouldn't touch this.  It's pretty awful, but even today I enjoy this specific song that opened the movie.

"Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Main Title" Composed by Dennis McCarthy - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered in January of 1993, just as my 8th grade year was going into the home stretch.  I hated the pilot episode, "Emissary" (a friend of mine still recalls I even complained that I hated the color of the font used in the opening credits).  But I stuck with the show and quickly became hooked.  By the time GNP Crescendo released a soundtrack CD, I was in love with McCarthy's majestic main title.

"Theme from Jurassic Park" Composed by John Williams - Jurassic Park opened over the summer of 1993 and it was really the last major cool thing in my world before I began high school.  I went with a friend to see it at Showcase Cinemas and I'll never forget turning to him during the arrival at the island and telling him I absolutely had to have the soundtrack.  I bought it later that very day at Bigg's (I had to borrow a few dollars from my friend's mom, as it was full list price at Bigg's).  Just a couple days later, I saw it a second time for another friend's birthday, at the Kenwood Drive-In.  I'll never forget how awestruck I felt watching the scene where Grant and the kids are in the tree, feeding the brachiosaurus.  The sun had long set, and the screen there was flanked by trees, creating an atmosphere very similar to what was on the screen.  I still feel the magic whenever I here this score, which I still believe is the finest work of John Williams's illustrious career.

10 April 2011

On Education

I'm smarter than you are.  I'm better than you, too.

There.  I said it.

Now, you're wondering why I said it.  You didn't come here to hear me get snotty, after all.  In truth, I'm not arrogant but there are an awful lot of people who are convinced I must really be harboring those thoughts.  See, I hold a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Louisville, earned in history.  I was one of only nine students in my graduating class to earn a B.A. in history with honors (cum laude for me; I missed magna cum laude by "thismuch").  And yet, my degree has largely been a liability for me.  I know I have to keep quiet about it around certain people because they're convinced anyone who went to college has a superiority complex.  Such people marginalize the value of an education by saying, "Well, you might be 'book smart', but..."  That's the closest to a kind word I'll get: being dismissed as being better read than them, but with the stipulation that I cannot possibly understand "the real world" because I was off burying my head in something as frivolous as a book.

Is he smarter than his bosses?
Recall, if you will, the song, "Take This Job (And Shove It)," written by David Allen Coe.  The third verse discusses the supervisors of the factory:
The foreman, he's a regular dog; the line boss, he's a fool
Got a brand new flat top haircut Lord, he thinks he's cool
One of these days I'm gonna blow my top and that sucker, he's gonna pay
I suspect that if we asked the foreman, we'd find out he's not a dog at all; but rather, he's tasked with a bunch of illiterate screw-offs.  The line boss would tell us that, yes, he is cool, and the truth is none of his underlings are even capable of doing his job, much less are they qualified to do it.  But we identify with the idea that what's really standing in our way are boneheaded bosses so however they got to their positions must not be working right.

Some people I know are more supportive, but oddly enough they feel most entitled to argue with me about my field of study.  If I were to pop off with trivia or cite a name and date, they'll let it slide assuming I'm right.  But if a conversation arises about interpreting history, then all my time spent on the topic means nothing.  Worse, it has been thrown in my face that I wasn't told "the truth."  Just once I'd like to know how it is that "the truth" could find its way to someone only by not having participated in disciplined studies.  Was it something you saw in a movie, or heard about from your neighbor's dad as a kid?  Any disagreement I have about these topics boils down to the accusation that I've been deceived.

This isn't a recent phenomenon, either.  When I was in grade school, I was similarly dismissed in such a conversation because I was clearly too young to know what I was talking about, and I needed to grow up before I was entitled to an opinion on something.  I was cautioned against devoting myself too much to education; it was little more than busywork that would never prepare me for "the real world."  Speaking articulately got me lectured more than once as a kid about how my $5 words didn't make me better than anyone else and I needed to quit showing off.  I began to feel self-conscious about my aptitude to the point that I began under-achieving.  I should have been at the top of my class by the end of high school, and instead I have little desire to look at my transcript.  My fear of making any further progress as a student became so pronounced that I even convinced myself that I wasn't good enough to handle more challenging concepts.

This culture of being suspicious of education and deriding those who have received one is the largest problem facing our education system.  Everything that undermines our education system can be traced to that attitude and perception.  In my estimation, there are three problems that need to be addressed if we're serious about improving education in the United States.

Firstly, our public school teachers have been emasculated by parents and their lawyers.  Students know that their teachers have few recourses in the event they are uncooperative.  Private school students rarely display disruptive behavior.  Private schools have no problem replacing that student (and hence, are not afraid that they won't still collect tuition), and private school parents view their children's education as an investment to be properly managed.

Secondly, our public school parents have developed the wrong attitude about teachers.  There is a sense that, because teachers are paid through tax money, teachers work for the parents.  There are a lot of parents out there who believe that helping their child with homework is tantamount to doing the teacher's job for him.  If a student becomes frustrated too often over homework, you're guaranteed a parent who will complain that the teacher must not be doing his job right.

Thirdly, public school curricula is at the mercy of politics.  There's always someone campaigning on a platform that they will "fix" or "turn around" the education system.  It tends to work with voters, because they're all convinced that in a "good" education system, their kids won't ask for their help with homework.  The problem here is that education is a macro process.  It takes years for the cumulative impact on a student to be seen.  The new directives for the education system are written, altering the trajectory already in progress.  How can any system be effective when it's subject to such constant meddling?  Private schools are immune to such sabotage, and their students enjoy much greater stability in consequence.

Notice, if you will, that I don't argue our teachers need more accountability.  There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, education is a macro process and standardized testing is a micro level snapshot; it does not tell us anything meaningful about the impact our teachers are having.  Secondly, I firmly believe that if you address the three points I've described and allow our educators to do their jobs without constant meddling and being undermined, it will reveal just how good our teachers really are.

"The Thinker" by Auguste Rodin.
Photo: CJ/Wikipedia Commons
There is also an open resentment toward any collegiate major that doesn't confer on graduates a job title.  If you complete a medical major, you're automatically a nurse, physician's assistant or doctor--those make sense to people.  Other majors, though, meet with scorn and derision.  Having a degree in history is bad enough; I can only imagine how philosophy majors are treated.  "There's no job for a philosophy major," you'll hear.

Philosophy, more than any other discipline, cultivates critical thinking skills--skills that are sorely lacking in our workplace environments.  One wonders how many of our financial institutions could have benefited from having a philosopher on their board of directors in addition to all those people with business backgrounds.  Clearly, the economic interests of very few people were served by the short-sighted practices that led to our current woes.  If we're to succeed, we need true leadership--and we need to consider that those skills may not be cultivated in our business schools.

When I recently argued this in an online discussion, I was met with the following rebuke:
theres no guarantee that one will be a critical thinker after a philosophy degree - in fact expecting a job with no real skills shows a lack of cognisance of the job market.
Claiming to be a "critical thinker" is like claiming to be a "problem solver" its a personal enrichment claim and anybody can be that quite frankly
This is what we're up against, people.  Critical thinking is not considered a viable skill and is actively discouraged.  Until we fix this, nothing is going to get better.

08 April 2011

Support Your Local Stripper

On the radio tonight I heard a promo spot for a strip club in Indiana, just across the river from Louisville.  The narrator emphasized that customers can still get there what they can no longer get in Louisville: lap dances.  See, thanks to legislation that went into effect 1 February, it is now illegal for a strip club to provide alcohol, nudity or lap dances.  Dancers must remain six feet away from customers.

Robert Henderson
Louisville Metro Council member Robert Henderson said in response to the impact of the new ordinances, "Money is not an issue there. This city will go on and many cities will go on. We're not putting them out of business" (quoted by WHAS-11).  Jefferson County had twenty five adult businesses at the time the ordinances took effect.  Here we are, two months later, and what has happened is that Jefferson County has given our neighbors across the Ohio River a tremendous opportunity to profit.

You know what galls me most about this?  It's that, once again, self-righteous moralists have run roughshod over a smaller group of people.  Bible-thumpers are well organized, well funded and clearly have so few problems of their own that they've got to devote themselves to attacking other people.  When a self-righteous mob felt justified in stoning to death a prostitute, it was Jesus who intervened and admonished them--not her.  It's a shame He's not standing up to these self-appointed soul savers today.  The challenge from God is not to rid the world of vice; it's to live among it while remaining faithful to your beliefs.  In theory, then, if you were to abolish temptation you would ironically negate the entire point of having faith.  To be a "good Christian," you cannot live in a bubble.  If your faith is never tested, then it is meaningless.  Moreover, because something disagrees with your religious ideals is insufficient justification for government action in a democracy.

Get thee back six feet!
And who, I ask you, is there to stand up for the strippers?  I'm not going to make excuses for what they do for a living; it's none of my--or your--business why they dance.  Maybe they were abused as children.  Maybe they really are putting themselves through school.  Does it matter?  No other person is asked to justify his employment to society, and in a free society we have no business applying different scrutiny to strippers.

How many strippers are there in Louisville, anyway?  It's difficult to know, but here are the figures shown on Findastripclub.net for seven of the sixteen strip clubs they show in their directory for Louisville:

Body Shop: 11-20
Foxy Lady: 21-30
Silver Slipper: Under 10
Thorobred 2: 11-20
Tropicabana: Under 10

It seems that 11-20 is the average number of dancers employed by a given club.  That's 176-320 dancers in sixteen clubs in Louisville.  But wait!  It goes beyond the strippers themselves who are impacted by this self-righteous legislation.  What about the rest of the employees?  Each club employed at least two DJs, bartenders and bouncers (one can't be expected to be there from open to close, every day, right?), and a maintenance worker.  That means that you're looking at 96 workers in Jefferson County whose livelihood has been threatened in addition to the dancers themselves, and the owners.  In all likelihood, there were more than two bartenders per club and certainly more than two bouncers.  If we increase our guess to three each per club, that puts us up to 144 workers potentially out of work--and, again, this is in addition to the dancers themselves.

That stage design won't go around here.
All told, we're looking at 272-464 dancers, DJs, bartenders and bouncers who will very likely have to begin looking for new work very soon.  And remember, in all likelihood the actual number of non-dancing employees is even higher than the figures I've hazarded here.  It could very easily be that 500 people will be out of their job by the time it's all over.  Five hundred people may not seem like much, but the county's population was an estimated 741,096 according to the 2010 Census.  That's one in every 1482 Louisvillians employed.  The effect goes even further, because these people--yes, they're people--have families of their own.  Let's say each bouncer has one kid; that's at least 32 and very likely 48 or more children in Louisville whose households won't be able to count on Daddy's income.

What do we have to show for this?  Up to 500 (maybe more) people more in Jefferson County's already overwhelming unemployment pool, and a lot of families whose income will become unstable until it is cut off entirely.  At least, until club owners can establish a new location across the river.  I'm sure New Albany will be happy to take Louisvillians's money...until the Bible-thumpers take the Sherman-Minton Bridge and resume their crusade.

Enough, I say!  If you have a problem with strip clubs...then don't visit them.  If you're afraid of your precious children being corrupted, I've got news for you: they haven't been allowed into the strip clubs.  They're no more dangerous to your children on Dixie Highway than they are on TV.  Does it bother you that your husband/boyfriend/son/whomever goes to strip clubs?  Then take it up with him.  If he chooses to continue patronizing strip clubs over your objections, then your problem isn't with strip clubs.  It's that you're in a relationship with somebody who doesn't respect your wishes.

No one will rush to defend the victims in all this, so I'll be the one to say it.
Strippers are people, too.
And I, for one, support their right to dance for tips.

07 April 2011

How Soon Will You Go Bankrupt Under the New GOP Budget?

In answer to Mr. Eskow's question, I'm already there. I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2005, with a year left of my bachelor's studies. Crohn's is a chronic digestive disease for which there is no cure, very few treatment options and on a good day it feels like food poisoning. No one knows what causes it, and it tends to manifest in young people who haven't even had a chance to build a life for themselves­. I only managed to finish my degree through the beneficenc­e of my professors­, who kindly overlooked the fact I often arrived late, left during class and many times was absent entirely. Employers? Not as accommodat­ing. I was, of course, uninsured at the time of diagnosis, meaning that coverage has been entirely outside the question for me. My plans of earning a master's degree and teaching were entirely derailed. I simply cannot guarantee that I can actually be somewhere at a given time, or at all.

So when we discuss government programs, it's not an abstract issue for me. I don't just see graphs about how costly entitlemen­t programs are. I see my own daily life, miserable enough already, and I see angry conservati­ves resenting me for needing those programs. You think it sucks that we have to fund these programs? Try having to live off them, and then being told you're what's wrong with America because of it.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

03 April 2011

The Priorities of Sports Medicine

Now-retired baseball player Jim Edmonds recently had some unpleasant things to say about his brief stint with the Cincinnati Reds last season.  Like a lot of other bloggers and sports writers I could harp on Edmonds's history of self-aggrandizing and finger pointing, but I'm going to forgo his snipes about his tenure as a player.  Suffice it to say that I don't agree with Edmonds's assessment that he would be "chasing his kids" right now had it not been for his limited time with the Reds.  Instead, I'm more interested in the retort from Reds physician Dr. Timothy Kremchek, quoted by Mark Sheldon on MLB.com:
"In the short time I knew him, I thought he was professional and that he really wanted to help our team toward the end of the season and playoffs. I wish him luck with his family, and that's all I can say."
Dr. Kremchek
It's okay if you've read about Edmonds's remarks already and don't recognize Dr. Kremchek's above remarks; I couldn't find them quoted in nearly any of the online summaries of this little spat.  I'm just a fan and have no firsthand knowledge of the guy, or how he treats players.  That said, it is appalling that a physician would appear to place the interests of his employer above those of his patient.

Was Jim Edmonds paid ridiculous amounts of money to play a game for a living?  Absolutely.  Did he know the risks to his health, continuing to run and dive for balls into his late 30s?  Of course.  This is a guy who suffered post-concussion syndrome in 2006, sat out all of 2009 (indignant that he wasn't offered a sufficiently lucrative deal by any Major League team) and yet insisted on returning to play in 2010.  He had a defensive style marked by sliding catches and had already sustained the injury to his Achilles heel that seems to have been the coup de grace for his playing days.

None of that negates the expectation that any patient should have that his own needs are placed above those of whomever is writing his physician's paycheck.  It's bad enough when insurers intercede and restrict testing and treatment options, but for a doctor to indicate that he thought his patient would or should place his own interests secondary to that of an employer is outright repulsive.

Perhaps that's not what Dr. Kremchek meant by his remarks.  I don't know.  To the best of my knowledge, he has not been quoted about the situation since making those brief comments, and as I've already indicated I have no firsthand familiarity with either him or his practice.  His phrasing, though, calls attention to itself and is highly suspect.