27 March 2013

A Man Alone

Life is full of ups and downs. Some we create for ourselves, some are unavoidable. We do the best we can and hope that things we can't control go in our favor. Being in a relationship complicates things. It's nice to have someone with whom to share the ups and especially nice to have someone with whom to face the downs. There's a quid pro quo arrangement, though, in which we take on facing the other downs brought into the relationship along with our own. That's how it works.

I've been fortunate not to face a whole lot of downs throughout these last fifteen months. I've had Crohn's flares, and most of late July/early August was spent in bed or the bathroom. It was scary at first, as they always are, because I never know how severe any given flare will be, but thankfully Prednisone once more did its thing. On the whole, I've been able to handle things on my own. I don't care to elaborate what's going on but that good luck streak has come to an end.

I'm facing something right now that has overwhelmed and terrified me, and I have to face it alone. I've confided in my closest friends about the matter and they've all been wonderfully encouraging and supportive but it's not the same. They don't have skin in the game, so if things go badly they don't have to live with what that means to me. Not in the way that a partner/lover/spouse does, anyway. For the first time since 10 October 2011, when I learned that my marriage was coming to an end, I feel completely alone. I've been so overwhelmed that I took two anti-anxiety pills in the span of six hours Monday night and they barely registered with me.

There were lots of times throughout our marriage, of course, when I felt guilty for dragging my wife through my downs with me. "If it was just me, I could handle it but knowing someone else has to deal with these things because of me is too much," I thought. And it was; I really was consumed by shame and guilt. Now that I'm again facing something much bigger than myself, though, I find that I very selfishly wish I wasn't facing it alone.

I don't write this as bait to discuss how I'm doing or what's going on with me. I write it instead in hopes that it may give you, Dear Reader, pause to reflect on what your partner means to you...and what you mean to your partner. If I had one thing to say to you, it would be this:
Never resent having to fight alongside your partner in his or her battles. Always be grateful that he or she fights alongside you in yours.

22 March 2013

Congresswoman Ashley Judd?

Much has been made of late about the possibility of Ashley Judd making a run in the next election to challenge Senator Mitch McConnell. Though she hadn't even announced anything formal, Republicans already have tried to question her character by playing up the handful of nude scenes she's performed in films over the years. Because, you know, it's impossible to respect a woman once you've seen her naked. I've thought about the prospects for a Judd candidacy quite a bit and at this stage I have the following observations/thoughts/questions.

Diligence About Qualities
In a normal environment, people would be proud of Ashley Judd as a local girl who made good, but she should be mindful that there will be a whole lot of resistance to her coming off as a high-and-mighty know-it-all condescending to her old neighborhood. Almost all of her qualifications - her higher education, worldly knowledge, success in managing her career - can be liabilities for an electorate already hostile to all of those things. She needs to direct her campaign to Kentucky and not to America. If voters feel that she thinks she's better than they are just 'cause she's been all rich and famous, they'll shut her out.

McConnell's Vulnerability
Indications have been that he's more vulnerable in the next election than he has been in the past, but it's worth remembering that vulnerability isn't necessarily from Kentucky voters who think he's gone too far. A lot of it is from Kentucky voters who actually think he hasn't done enough to stand up to President Obama.  McConnell's greatest vulnerability is in the primaries against other Republicans.Republicans may be divided on whether to support him, but that doesn't mean they'll embrace a liberal candidate.

The Significance of McConnell
Though he's been the Minority Leader in the Senate and wields considerable power within the GOP, at the end of the day he's not even the real issue. They'll simply promote the next most senior Republican to continue prosecuting their agenda. Defeating him won't stop the GOP antics of trying everything they can to undermine the President and hammer away as hard as possible on the social safety net that they've opposed since FDR signed Social Security into law.

Why McConnell?
I have a lot of respect for Ashley Judd and I'll happily cast my ballot for her given the chance, but speaking strictly from a political perspective it's rather conspicuous for her first political campaign to try to unseat the Senate Minority Leader. Sure, his political head would make a great trophy but it would seem more prudent to make a run for the House of Representatives first. It would go a long way to helping establish her seriousness about political office, and to give voters a chance to acclimate to the idea of being represented by her.

Why the Senate?
Tactically speaking, the Democrats already control the Senate. It's the House of Representatives where we need to take the fight to the Republicans. Though her one vote would not make a statistical difference, her campaign could help other Democrat challengers in House races across the state and even the rest of the country. A Judd-for-the-House campaign could easily be a media-friendly microcosm of the House itself, and help voters get a fresh perspective on what is really at stake in that legislative body. She could be the tide that lifts other boats in a way that is a lot less likely in a Senate campaign.

Regardless of all these details, at the end of the day voters will still rightly want to know what it is that Judd envisions as our elected official. Does she have a political platform beyond Not Being Mitch McConnell? Conventional wisdom holds that campaigns are not the place for details, but rather big picture rhetoric. However, because the public perceives Judd as an actor, she'll need to demonstrate enough political ideas that voters can get past the idea of her play-pretending at being a politician and accept her as one.

19 March 2013

Monopoly: One-Percent Edition -- I Wanna Quit!

The rich have gotten richer than ever. They've done it at a time when the rest of us have struggled more than any time since World War II ended. There are signs the economy is recovering, but job opportunities are still few and far between - and meaningful jobs are scarcer than ever. Professionals have had to take menial jobs "and like it" because there's nothing more unsavory than someone who put in all the hard work to get ahead in life not being grateful to be at a rung on the ladder they could have reached without any effort at all. As for the poor, it's unfair to even say the rich have adopted Marie Antoinette's wrongly attributed "Let them eat cake" as a philosophy...because the rich now resent the poor even having cake because, you know, you're not entitled to cake and if you want it, then you need to get a job and work and earn it because no one owes you any cake and get off my damn lawn.

Conservatives keep pushing for austerity measures, despite the fact that all economic evidence makes clear that austerity is destructive to the economy. Here's the problem: The economy is nothing more than a game to the rich. Why should it be anything else? They're insulated from any of the harsh realities everyone else faces. Money exists purely as an abstract thing to them, digits on a bank statement. Most damning of all is the fact that not only have few of them done anything the rest of us would regard as actual work, but the vast majority of their wealth at this point is accrued through investment schemes driven by such things as automated stock-trading programs that buy and sell within literal microseconds to maximize returns. Investing is bad enough, because you're getting rich off someone else's work but this is even worse because it requires absolutely nothing but start-up capital. It's even less respectable than being a professional gambler, because at least gamblers have to sit at the table and play for themselves.

No, at this point our entire economy has become one big game of Monopoly. We've reached that point near the end where the obvious winner hasn't gotten the last few pieces, and the rest of us have to keep playing even though we were realistically eliminated hours ago. Austerity isn't about the economy. It's about the coup de grace for the rich. They can't kill the rest of us, so the next best thing is to kill all participation in our existence.
First to a MILLION wins! The rest of us have to sit on and watch.
This is why they're all for privatization: They own the businesses that would take care of things, which means they would be able to ensure that their needs were met entirely to their liking...with no obligation to do anything for anyone else. It's easy to say you want to privatize road maintenance when you own a paving business and you can't stand having a pothole in your neighborhood. It's quite another to actually have to address the very real infrastructure issues that the rest of us face in our communities day in, day out.

I don't know what to do. In the game, you can just agree that it's pointless to play it out because it's so painfully obvious what will happen and the victor-to-be has the chance to either graciously accept the request and begin gloating, or to whine about wanting to see it through - because, after all, as the presumptive victor, he or she is entitled to make everyone bear witness to their triumph.

We get it. You're rich. You have almost everything. Can we concede that and get on to something else? I hate Monopoly. Let's play Frozen Kissers, because I need some kissin'.

09 March 2013

"Strait Out of the Box" by George Strait

Strait Out of the Box
George Strait
Original Release Date: 12 September 1995
Date of Purchase: 2 October 1997
4 discs | 72 songs | 217:32

I only know the date I bought mine because last year, I came across the canceled check I wrote for it. I paid $36.21 (including sales tax). This was the first box set I ever bought, and it remains the gold standard by which I judge them all. Box sets have become extraneous in the digital era, where fans can simply throw an entire artist's discography onto their iPods and make their own career-spanning playlists, but in 1995, this one rewarded fans for re-buying so many songs they probably already had.

Strait Out of the Box surveys the entire first fifteen years of George Strait's recording career. Every album in his discography to that point is represented with the lone exception of 1987's Merry Christmas Wherever You Are, for obvious reasons. Every non-holiday single is included, with the lone exception of "Down and Out", his second charting single, which Strait himself disliked and didn't even want to release. There are quite a lot of album cuts, too, each personally selected by Strait, and another eleven rarities such as three songs Strait recorded prior to signing with MCA. It's this blend of radio favorites, album cuts and rarities that makes Strait Out of the Box so compelling.

Other box sets tend to be much lazier, opting to just collect radio singles and some B-sides. For instance, Garth Brooks's 1998 The Limited Series simply threw his first six studio albums in a box, adding one song to each. There was clearly more thought put into Strait Out of the Box.

Perhaps the most impressive work that went into this isn't even the music content at all, but rather the 72-page booklet. There's a 37-page, in-depth biography of King George penned by Paul Kingsbury that chronicles his life and career, chock full of photos from publicity stills to personal candids. That's followed by a cut-by-cut commentary organized by Kay West from her interview with Strait about each of the songs here. Completing the booklet is Dee Henry Jenkins's discography of the included material listing songwriter and performer credits, recording dates, etc.

It's as close to an authorized biography or autobiography as Strait has ever released and a valuable resource for his fans - particular at the time of its pre-Internet era. Remember, kids...there used to be a time when information wasn't just a Google search or Wikipedia visit away. Even now, it's a wonderful source. I consulted it last year when I penned a blog piece for Flickchart on the Pure Country soundtrack album.

What's remarkable about George Strait's career has been his consistency. There has yet to be a particularly conspicuous George Strait album, though that's not to say they're all repetitive. On the contrary, this box set demonstrates how comfortably Strait has explored his range of styles. It can be difficult to tell when listening to any of these four discs just when you've moved on from material from one album to the next, but pull back a bit and contrast any of the four discs and it reveals how much growth actually took place every few years. None of the songs here are embarrassingly dated, because Strait never followed faddish trends, but there are distinctive "phases".

My personal favorite of the four discs here has always been Disc Two. My favorite of Strait's albums from the surveyed years is Ocean Front Property, and it's represented on that disc. Plus, my favorite Strait song ever, "The Cowboy Rides Away", is also on that disc. So too is "The Chair", as well as "In Too Deep" and "Lefty's Gone", all three from Something Special.I thoroughly enjoy Strait's duet with Hank Thompson on "Six Pack to Go", a song recorded for Thompson's duets album.

I do wish they'd included more material from 1994's Lead On, my second favorite Strait album from the first 15 years of his career. That album was still charting and singles were still being released at the time this box was compiled, though, so I can understand why it wasn't a priority. "The Big One" is a fun song and I like it, but I'd have loved for "Adalida" or "I Met a Friend of Yours Today" to have made their way into this box set.

Each disc comes in just under an hour, because there was also a cassette version of this box set. I've long wondered what might have been included had they sequenced exclusively for CD, which could have added up to a full hour of additional content. In my idealized version, there were another four songs from Lead On included at the least, as well as the live recording of Strait's performance of "All My Ex's Live in Texas" at the Grammy Awards (included on Grammy's Greatest Country Moments, Volume II). There was also the George Strait Live! concert video. From that, I'd have selected "Dance Time in Texas", a song that even as of this blog post he has never recorded for one of his studio albums.

Also, at least one song from Merry Christmas Strait to You. I think I'd probably have picked either the title track or perhaps the forlorn "What a Merry Christmas This Could Be", composed by veteran songwriters Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. Perhaps "When It's Christmas Time in Texas", written by Benny McArthur, a longtime member of Strait's Ace in the Hole Band.

"Schindler's List" by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's List
Thomas Keneally
Date of Publication: 18 October 1982
400 pages
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Available from Oldham County Public Library
Read from 20 February - 9 March 2013

I've seen Steven Spielberg's film thrice, but only now finally sat down to read Thomas Keneally's original novel. I was struck within the first few pages of the ease of his prose, catching the novelist's mindfulness of audience that the historical expert sometimes lacks. I encountered the same thing when I read Robert Morgan's excellent Boone: A Biography a few years ago. Schindler's List (originally Schindler's Ark) was branded a novel but in truth it's merely a casually told work of historical research presented by a novelist.

I came to Schindler's List in hopes that I may find an answer to the one question I was left with by Spielberg's film: "Just when, and why, did Oskar Schindler commit to using his business as a haven for Jews?" It's one of the first points Keneally addresses, quickly noting that there is no clear answer to that question. I was initially disappointed by that non-answer, but later I came to appreciate it. I kind of prefer the ambiguity. Maybe it's because I've become burned out on origin stories over the years as a comic book reader?

Keneally clearly did his homework and rather than presenting to us a dramatization of his findings, he has instead organized and synthesized it for us. Like Morgan, Keneally makes a point to note when there's ambiguity or disagreement in the historical record about a specific event, allowing us to draw upon the available evidence rather than avoiding or, worse, arbitrarily filling in those gaps for us. The chief benefit to Keneally of not being a historian by vocation is that he was free to insert his own biases into his writing. He champions Schindler freely; admitting his character flaws with one sentence before downplaying or apologizing for them, the next. My inner historian "tsk tsk"d a few times, but only halfheartedly.

One of the most difficult parts of historical writing is citation. I personally loathe end notes; they're inconvenient and while they make allow the main text to be read without interruption, the fact that I have to thumb back and forth to follow up on a given point makes that format much too frustrating for me as a reader. Footnotes are best, but they do clutter the page. Keneally, though, avoided the entire issue by being a "novelist" here. Rather organically, he simply invokes the source of whichever account he's referencing as an omniscient narrator. It works very well, and I have to say I'm both impressed that he managed to shift from one testimonial to the next without becoming mired in redundant segues, as well as envious that he was able to sidestep the entire citation process!

The subject matter here is, of course, the darkest and most somber. I could only read a chapter or so at a time before needing to step away from it - and this despite my own familiarity with the events described through my studies both formal and informal. If I was periodically made squeamish, then I imagine the average person who pays only a cursory amount of attention to historical events must be overcome by anxiety and disgust.

Despite all that, though, Keneally as novelist manages to find the enduring humanity at every turn. He does not hesitate to describe to us the sadism and unfathomable cruelty inflicted by the Nazis, but he's does not allow the villains to dominate his narrative. Instead, Keneally remains focused on relaying to us the accounts of how people adapted and survived; the ingenuity, shrewdness and courage behind every scheme and daring act undertaken by those whose stories he was entrusted to share with us.

To wit, I never anticipated finding in Schindler's List of all places one of the most moving, romantic stories I've ever encountered. Yet there it was, the tale of Josef Bau insisting on courting Rebecca Tenenbaum properly in the prewar tradition. Each of them in love with the other, trying desperately to avoid attracting the attention of the erratic and sadistic Amon Goeth and his underlings. There, in the middle of Hell on Earth, bloomed one of the loveliest romances ever recorded. Per tradition, even though they periodically had opportunity for physical love, they showed restraint in a time where it must have seemed the most ludicrous matter in the world. All the same, the young couple proceeded as they would have had they met not in a concentration camp but as a free man and woman. They wed in secret in the women's dorm in Plaszow, officiated by one of the elder women in lieu of a rabbi. Rebecca walked around him seven times and he stepped on a burnt out light bulb for the ceremonial glass.

Their courtship boosted the morale of some of the older women in her dorm, recruited as their chaperones in the pageant. It was a direct continuity with customs and norms that had been all but snuffed out by the Nazis, and in its way perhaps the most defiant anecdote in all the accounts recorded by Keneally in his work here. Though I was affected by the entire book, I only came close to tearing up a few times. Once was when I read of Josef and Rebecca's courtship. Another time came later, when I learned that she and Josef's mother were both sent to Auschwitz and perished there, though perhaps I misread that because Wikipedia informs me that after they were liberated, the Baus and their three-year-old daughter emigrated to Israel in 1950. I'd like to think this wasn't an instance of Keneally "taking artistic license" and choosing to murder Rebecca Tenenbaum just to make me tear up a second time.

Keneally later wrote the memoir, Searching for Schindler, about his involvement with researching and telling this astounding story. I'm eager to get to that, though it'll be a little while because I'm just not ready to continue exploring the Keneally/Schindlerjuden narrative. For now, I'm content to say that Schindler's List was every bit as engaging, touching and overwhelming as I wanted it to be, and then some.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

02 March 2013

Things I Love: Cookie Monster

Like so many kids from the last few decades, I grew up with Sesame Street helping to introduce me to the alphabet, numbers and etiquette. In my later childhood I came to enjoy Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Babies, too. I love me some Muppets, but there's one Muppet who stands atop them all: Cookie Monster.

It cake made for me second birthday by me mommy!
I love everything about Cookie Monster. I love the actual look of the character, with that big round belly and long, thin neck and those mismatched eyeballs. I love the voice, first by Frank Oz then later by David Rudman. Cookie Monster sounds a bit like Grover, but not as wacky. No, Cookie Monster is more grounded than Grover. He's focused (on cookies, of course). I love that he has absolutely no self-consciousness about his obsession with cookies. Why should he? He's called "Cookie Monster"! He knows who he is and he's fine with that. I've long envied how comfortable he is with himself and if you're being entirely honest with yourself, so have you.

I don't ordinarily share a lot of video content on this blog, but Cookie Monster warrants it. Here are just some of the wonderful things he's done.

"C Is for Cookie"

Cookie Monster makes the case for why "C" is the best letter in the entire alphabet and it's a pretty compelling argument. Oh, sure, Ernie has the most famous Sesame Street song with "Rubber Ducky" and that's okay if you're into that kind of thing, but "C Is for Cookie" may just be the better song.

Cookie Monster and Count Cooperate

What happens when Count von Count and Cookie Monster encounter a plate of cookies? The Count must obey his OCD compulsion to count them; Cookie Monster has no choice but to eat them. It's the classic case of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

The Origin of "Om Nom Nom Nom"

Can you imagine LOLSpeak without "Om Nom Nom Nom"? Here, its originator explains it. Side note: I would re-enroll in college if it meant taking a class taught by Cookie Monster.

Cookie Monster Answers Your Questions

In 2010, The Huffington Post recruited Cookie Monster to answer questions from fans. No, really.

Audition for Saturday Night Live

Fans flocked to the Internet to get Betty White to host an episode of Saturday Night Live, which prompted the greatest Muppet of them all to decide he wanted to do it, too. Here's his brilliant audition tape which, I might add, is better than most episodes of SNL from the last twenty years.

"Share It Maybe"

Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" was a pop music sensation last year, but it was really just the warm-up for this parody video starring Cookie Monster. This video justifies every single time you turned on the radio or walked into a store last year and you were instantly bombarded by Jepsen's inescapable single.

Cookie Monster Feels HAPPY and SAD

I leave you with this clip in which Cookie Monster grapples with some weighty existential issues about his emotions. Several of my friends have been going through a rough patch lately and I shared this clip on Facebook last week. Their feedback let me know it was the right thing to show them. It's brilliant.

Cookie Monster recently shared the following image on his Facebook page. If you've ever wondered what true serenity looks like, now you know.

My thanks once again to Nikol Hasler for inspiring the "Things I Love" series.