31 May 2011

Midnights at the Baxter 2011 Summer Lineup

Summer is upon us, and this is the schedule of midnight movies at Baxter Avenue Theaters as voted on by us, the fans.  Yet again, Tombstone failed to garner the requisite votes to make the lineup, much to my chagrin.

Curse of the Revenge of the Return of the
Splodin' Summer Series of Doom
"The Legend of Curly's Gold"

28 May 2011

11 June 2011

25 June 2011
The Dark Knight

2 July 2011
Easy Rider
Return Engagement

16 July 2011
The Good, the Bad
and the Ugly
Return Engagement

23 July 2011
Trigun: Badlands Rumble

30 July 2011
Jurassic Park
Return Engagement

13 August 2011
Last Action Hero

27 August 2011
Road House

30 May 2011

Legends of the Gipper: The Long At-Bat

Sure, you're familiar with Ronald Reagan as President of the United States and maybe you've seen movies starring Ronald Reagan the actor, but did you know that before he was either of those things, he was Ronald Reagan the sportscaster?  Demonstrating the ability to think on his feet that would serve him so well in public life, "Dutch" was once presented with a particularly challenging task while calling a Chicago Cubs/St. Louis Cardinals game on the radio.  This anecdote is told by Mr. Reagan himself, shared in Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches (pages 70-71).

Broadcasting for WHO in Des Moines, c. 1934.
What isn't in the record books is Billy Jurges staying at the plate, I think, the longest of any ballplayer in the history of the game.  I was doing the games by telegraphic report, and the fellow on the other side of a window with a little slit underneath, the headphones on, getting the dot-and-dash Morse code from the ball park, would type out the play.  And the paper would come through to me--it would say, "S1C."  Well you're not going to sell any Wheaties saying, "S1C!" [Laughter]  So, I'd say, "And so-and-so comes out of the windup, here's the pitch, and it's a called strike, breaking over the outside corner to so-and-so, who'd rather have a ball someplace else and so forth and backed out there."
Well, I saw him start to type, and I started--Dizzy Dean was on the mound--and I started the ball on the way to the plate--or him in the windup and he, Curly, the fellow on the other side, was shaking his head, and I thought he just--maybe it was a miraculous play or something.  But when the slip came through it said, "The wire's gone dead."  Well, I had the ball on the way to the plate. [Laughter]  And I figured real quick, I could say we'll tell them what had happened and then play transcribed music.  But in those days there were at least seven or eight other fellows that were doing the same ball game.  I didn't want to lose the audience.
So, I thought real quick, "There's one thing that doesn't get in the score book," so I had Billy foul one off.  And I looked at Curly, and Curly just went like this; so I had him foul another one.  And I had him foul one back at third base and described the fight between two kids that were trying to get the ball. [Laughter]  Then I had him foul one that just missed being a home run, about a foot and a half.  And I did set a world record for successive fouls or for someone standing there, except no one keeps records of that kind.  And I was beginning to sweat, when Curly sat up straight and started typing, and he was nodding his head, "Yes."  And the slip came through the window, and I could hardly talk for laughing, because it said, "Jurges popped out on the first ball pitch." [Laughter]
This season, there are nine Major League Baseball games scheduled to participate in a centennial celebration of Ronald Reagan, and interestingly enough the Chicago Cubs play in three of them:
  • 2 May - San Diego Padres vs. Pittsburgh Pirates
  • 3 June - St. Louis Cardinals vs. Chicago Cubs
  • 8 June - Cincinnati Reds vs. Chicago Cubs
  • 14 June - Atlanta Braves vs. New York Mets
  • 23 June - Washington Nationals vs. Seattle Mariners
  • 4 July - Los Angeles Dodgers vs. New York Mets
  • 4 July - Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim vs. Detroit Tigers
  • 6 August - Chicago Cubs vs. Cincinnati Reds
  • TBD - New York Yankees vs. TBA

26 May 2011

The Presidents in Comic Books 1: FDR

The Presidents in Comic Books
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
I thought that I might explore the unique intersection of two of my favorite subjects: comic books and the presidency.  We begin this sub-series with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first sitting president to be featured in the funny books.  The list below reflects only issues published during his lifetime and does not account for FDR's numerous posthumous appearances.  If you know of any missing issues, let me know so I can update the list.

Action Comics #49 (June, 1942)
Action Comics #52 (September, 1942)
I'm not clear on the nature of Roosevelt's appearance in #49, but in #52 he apparently feebly surrenders power to a guy wearing a helmet who waltzes into the White House and declares himself the Emperor of America in an alternate future story of some kind.  Superman thwarts the Emperor in the end.  Not exactly the kind of "rally 'round the president" story one might expect during 1942.

Blue Ribbon Comics #16 (September, 1941)
I am entirely unfamiliar with this series, but Roosevelt appears in the story, "The Origin of Captain Flag."

Captain America Comics #1 (March, 1941)
Captain America Comics #4 (June, 1941)
Captain America Comics #21 (December, 1942)
Captain America Comics #40 (July, 1944)
Interestingly, two of FDR's four appearances in Captain America were before Pearl Harbor.

Captain Marvel, Jr. #3 (January 20, 1943)
What I know about FDR's appearance here is that he's in a story called "Case of the Terrible Teeth" alongside a character called Captain Nippon.  One can well imagine the kind of racist propaganda of the story.  Herr Hitler appears in one of the other stories.

Crack Comics #19 (December, 1941)
With a cover date of December, 1941 and a title like, "The President's Been Kidnapped!" one can only imagine how this issue went over with youthful readers.

Detective Comics #69
At first, you're thinking you get a story combining Batman and FDR which would be really swell.  Unfortunately, that's not the case.  Theirs are just two of the six stories collected in this issue.  Roosevelt appears in the second story, "The Siege of Krovka" by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon featuring the Boy Commandos pitted against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.  Among the Boy Commandos is Dan Turpin, later re-characterized as a cop in Metropolis in more recent Superman incarnations.

Exciting Comics #6 (December, 1940)

Hit Comics #4 (October, 1940)

The Human Torch #3 (Winter, 1940)
The Human Torch #5b (Fall, 1941) - also features Winston Churchill
Between these two issues, two issues of Marvel Mystery Comics, an issue of Sub-Mariner Comics and an issue of Young Allies, FDR spent quite a lot of time amongst The Human Torch, his sidekick Toro and Namor.

Joe Palooka #1 (January 1942)
This includes a storyline in which Joe has been caught up in an adventure with the French Foreign Legion.  Writer Hammond Fisher needed a deus ex machina to extricate his protagonist, and contacted the White House to see if President Roosevelt would consent to appearing in the strip to intervene within the story.  FDR agreed, and in so doing became the first sitting president to agree to appear in a commercial comic strip.    Note that this comic book issue is a collection reprinting Joe Palooka newspaper comic strips, which is why the cover date is misleading. [See: New Comics #4 for first appearance in a comic book.]

Lightning Comics #11 (February, 1942)

Marvel Mystery Comics #12 (October, 1940)
Marvel Mystery Comics #54 (April, 1944)

That cover to #54 (right ==>) tells you we're in full anti-Japanese mode.  More association between the Torch & Toro and FDR.

Mystic Comics #6 (October, 1941)
"Featuring The Destroyer, enemy of dictators" is the blurb on the cover.  This issue attests to the impatience among many Americans that we had not entered World War II sooner.

New Comics #4 (March-April, 1935)
Roosevelt's first appearance in a comic book!  [See: Joe Palooka #1 for first appearance in a comic strip.]

"The Most Important Man on Earth!"
Take that, Dos Equis guy!
Real Heroes #1 (September, 1941)
Real Heroes #4 (May, 1942)

Real Life Comics #6

These, along with True Comics, are part of a wave of reality-based comic book series from the Golden Age that sought to dramatize in graphic form the exploits of historical figures and events.  To the extent that they were intended as educational materials, I cannot attest.  Perhaps the intent was to further sensationalize the subjects; maybe the publishers just resented the proliferation of superheroes in the wake of Superman's debut.  Regardless, we see Roosevelt well represented in these kinds of comic books, and we will later see his successors also chronicled in such publications--particularly Dwight Eisenhower, who won the affection of these comics as a general long before taking the oath of office.

Remember Pearl Harbor
I have to say, I felt a lot better about the assorted 9/11 comics when I discovered the existence of a comic book in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

Sub-Mariner Comics #13 (Spring, 1944)
Looking over this list, I think FDR spent more time in the company of Namor than Eleanor.

Thrilling Comics #10 (November, 1940)

True Comics #2 (June, 1941)
True Comics #4 (September, 1941)
True Comics #39 (September-October)

Again, more of the reality-based comic books that seemed to really take a liking to the president.

Uncle Sam Quarterly Winter Issue (Winter 1941)
FDR appears in the second story, "War in Kid-Land" penned by Will Eisner.

Young Allies #7 (April, 1943)
FDR is featured here, and so is Emperor Hirohito.

25 May 2011

Senator Rand Paul on the PATRIOT Act

Photo by Gage Skidmore.
From Senator Paul's Twitter page.
I tend to bust Senator Rand Paul's chops on this blog, but one of my guiding adages holds that even a broken clock is right twice a day.  That in mind, I wanted to make a specific effort to praise his efforts to combat the PATRIOT Act adopted in the wake of the September 11 attacks.  I despise the everything about the act, down to its name, and I take particular issue with the ALL CAPS spelling.  I could have sworn the thing had been allowed to expire already, but apparently only particular components were affected by that deadline.  The act proper is poised to be renewed, and Senator Paul, unable to rally sufficient support to prevent that renewal, has proposed eight amendments to curb the most egregious and intrusive elements.  Here are the amendments (taken directly from Senator Paul's official website):

  • Burden-Shifting Suspicious Activity Report Amendment: Requires law enforcement to initiate requests for suspicious activity reports (SARs). Shifts the burden for generating suspicious activity reports to law enforcement, requiring FBI/other law enforcement to initiate requests for SARs, rather than requiring financial institutions to automatically generate these reports.
    • Supported by Kentucky Bankers Association and National Association of Federal Credit Unions
  • National Security Letters Issued by Judges: States that no officer or employee of the United States may issue a National Security Letter (NSL) unless a FISA court judge finds that probable cause exists to issue the NSL. Brings NSLs into compliance with plain text of Fourth Amendment.
  • Firearm Records Amendment: Clarifies that the authority to obtain info under the USA PATRIOT Act does not include authority to obtain certain firearm records. Supported by Gun Owners of America.
  • Roving Wiretaps Amendment: This amendment eliminates the possibility of "John Doe" roving wiretaps that identify neither the person nor the phone to be wiretapped. Also requires government agents to ascertain the presence of the target of a roving wiretap before beginning surveillance of a particular phone or email, using the same standard that is already required for criminal roving taps.
  • Leahy/Paul Amendment: This amendment consists of the substance of Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) PATRIOT Act reform bill (S. 193) as reported from the Judiciary Committee. The vote was 10-7 (those voting in favor included Sen. Mike Lee [R-Utah]).
    • Sen. Paul is co-sponsoring Sen. Leahy's amendment.
  • Section 215/Access to Business Records: Restores the pre-PATRIOT Act standard for obtaining records.
    • Supported by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL).
  • "Good Faith Standard" Suspicious Activity Report Amendment: This amendment would implement a reform that was previously proposed by the Financial Services Roundtable. This reform will help reduce the high number of "defensive filings" submitted by financial institutions due to their fear of being penalized for failure to file a suspicious activity report (SAR). It codifies a "good faith standard" to ensure that if a financial institution has established a SAR decision-making process, has followed existing policies, procedures, and processes, and determines not to file a SAR, the bank or credit union would not be penalized for its failure to file the SAR unless the failure was accompanied by evidence of bad faith.
    • Supported by Kentucky Bankers Association and National Association of Federal Credit Unions
  • Judicial Review of Suspicious Activity Reports: States that the Secretary of the Treasury may not require any financial institution to submit a suspicious activity report unless an appropriate district court of the United States issues an order finding that probable cause exists to obtain the information.
  • Minimization/Destruction of NSL and Section 215 Business Records Info: Directs the Attorney General to establish minimization and destruction procedures governing the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of private information by the FBI. The purpose is to ensure that private information obtained outside the scope of an NSL or Section 215 order is appropriately disposed of or destroyed.
His expansive statement made on the floor of the United States Senate has tinges of tin foil hat paranoia, but the lion's share of it speaks directly to the core philosophy that I and many Americans have espoused since long before Osama bin Laden became a household name. The microcosm of Senator Paul's argument can be read in the following excerpt:

Now, some have said, well, if you have nothing to hide, why do you care?
Well, the thing is that it will not always be angels that are in charge of government. You have rules because you want to prevent the day that may occur when you get someone who takes over your government through elected office or otherwise who really is intent on using the tools of government to pry into your affairs, to snoop on what you're doing, to punish you for your political or religious beliefs.
That's why we don't ever want to let the law become so expansive. But the thing is you have to realize that you can still get terrorists. We get rapists and murderers every day by calling a judge. That's what I'm asking for.
I said the same thing a decade ago when the PATRIOT Act was first discussed. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft should have denounced the act and reassured us that it was an unnecessary over-reaction, but he didn't. It's rare that I enthusiastically endorse a position taken by Senator Paul, but this is one instance where I do not hesitate. I would urge anyone reading this to contact their senator and chastise them for not supporting Senator Paul's amendments.

Incidentally, Senator Paul is now on Twitter and can be followed or mentioned here.

22 May 2011


Arising from the recent hullabaloo over Harold Camping's much-publicized prediction that yesterday would see the rapture, the Twitter-verse has begun trending #myraptureplaylist.  Me being a playlist-making fool, I couldn't resist compiling my own rapture playlist.  Originally I had songs from several genres, but when I saw how few weren't country songs I decided the playlist was stronger by making it all country.  As I am wont to do with playlists, I limited selections to one song per artist (except Brooks & Dunn; I picked one song with each of the duo on lead vocals).  Some of these are obviously just selected because of their titles, but some actually are very on-topic.

"Goin' Away Party" by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard & Ray Price
I thought this was the perfect opening to a playlist of songs for the rapture.  Fun, somewhat sardonic and who wouldn't be comforted by hearing Willie's voice during the End of Times?

"The Man Comes Around" by Johnny Cash
Um, it's a song about the End Times, inspired by a dream Cash had.  The Man in Black mined Scripture for his lyrics.  My spine tingles to hear this song now as much as it did when I first bought the album in 2002.

There were several Waylon songs I considered, but this seemed the most appropriate.  Plus, it's a lively song.

"The End of the World" by Skeeter Davis
This one got in on the basis of its title alone.  Rather an obvious choice, really.

"Gone (That'll Be Me)" by Dwight Yoakam
Another one that got in on its title alone.  I suppose in the context of the rapture this is an awfully arrogant thing to say, as it assumes you're on God's list of people to be spared the End of Times.

I was afraid to have a song this serious on a playlist obviously meant in jest, but then I figured if I could have Cash's "The Man Comes Around," there was room for this.  Kix Brooks's finest recording.

"How Long Gone" by Brooks & Dunn
This one was a gimme.  "How long gone are you gonna be?"  I love the song anyway, and in the context of the rapture it's just funny.

"Long Time Gone" by Dixie Chicks
I like this as an answer to "How Long Gone."  Content-wise, this one is a stretch.  It's really more about a young woman leaving her small town to chase her dreams, then coming back home.  The title was appropriate, though, and it's a genuinely great song.  Plus, "Not Ready to Make Nice" just seemed mean-spirited in the context of this playlist.

"Gone" by Montgomery Gentry
"Gone like a freight train/gone like yesterday/gone like a soldier in the Civil War, bang! bang!"  Great chorus, and a fun part of this playlist.  Originally I had picked MG's "While the World Goes Down the Drain," but decided I liked singing along more with this one.

"I'm a Long Gone Daddy" by Hank Williams III
Hank III covers his grandfather.  Great recording, and perfectly appropriate to this playlist.

"Gone as a Girl Can Get" by George Strait
"She's out of here/she disappeared without a trace/more or less unimpressed/by the tears on my face."  It's as though this song was written just to be added to a rapture playlist.

It probably seems obvious to represent the Possum with "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which is why I went instead with "The King Is Gone."  It's a silly song, but one I felt better fit the overall tone of this playlist.

"A Country Boy Can Survive" by Hank Williams, Jr.
This one was so obvious I couldn't omit it.  Of course, there are bound to be country boys wondering if I'm suggesting God won't want to take them during the rapture.

Not rapture-specific at all, but I love the song and I thought it took on a whole new dimension once considered in the context of the rapture.  Will those left behind "go out a-walkin' after midnight/searching for you?"

"I'll Fly Away" by Randy Travis
Not much question about why this song made the list.  I picked Randy Travis's version simply because I love to hear him sing.

"Farewell Party" by Alan Jackson
A cover of a Gene Watson song, this has to be the darkest, most morose song in my library.  It's probably too dark for me to even use in a humorous context like this playlist, really, but here it is anyway.

I have always loved this song.  It's about a guy making peace with the finality of a relationship, declaring that the love had been so special it was even worth the pain.  I think that's a very healthy attitude to have.  Too often, I think people consider anything that hasn't worked out as a colossal failure.  I much prefer Milsap's take, that things can be special and rewarding even if they fall apart on us.

What better song to end the playlist?  Fun fact: this was the last single released by Williams before his death.  

21 May 2011

The End of the World Makes Me Anxious

Harold Camping wasn't content to just turn 90 this year.  No, he felt compelled to go the whole hog and advertise that today, 21 May 2011, will be Judgment Day.  Dude put up billboards and everything.  For those reading this blog post through the humor of hindsight, allow me to tell you that this entire week, online discourse has been dominated by mockery, from lighthearted zombie humor to some unfriendly critiques of those with faith.  It's been a fun week, all in all.

The Library of Congress is supposed to have archived everyone's public Twitter feed, and I'd suggest you spend some time looking at hash tags like #zombieapocalypse #endoftheworldconfessions and #iftheworldendsonsaturday.  I'm not a prophet, but verily I say unto you that one day a nerd with nothing else to do will mine these publicly recorded comments and jokes and find intellectual and comedy gold.  Just make sure to properly attribute my words to me.

The first time I read a book in a single setting was during my adolescence, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.  That novel changed my life.  I found Guy Montag infuriating; I was ahead of him intellectually, even as a youth and it bothered me that the protagonist of a story would be so slow to grasp his world.  Of course, Bradbury was brilliant to craft Montag that way.  His slow awakening is as agonizing to witness as it is captivating.  Montag's future is a bleak, senseless place devoid of curiosity and feeling; it is entirely contrary to everything I had ever considered for the future.  Even as a child of the 80s who expected the Soviets to initiate a nuclear holocaust every afternoon, I always believed that we would only ever improve the world.  That Montag's future would be so many steps backward from even my own youth was morally reprehensible to me.

I actually freaked out that night.  I had what may actually have been a modest nervous breakdown.  I remember screaming in the kitchen about how pointless life was, that this kind of society would be what awaits us.  Of course, I was too rabid to even articulate what the nature of the novel was, so I'm sure my family thought I'd been exposed to L.S.D. or something because no one had the faintest idea what the hell I was talking about in the first place.  Eventually, I had ranted and raved myself into exhaustion.  I don't recall anyone ever saying another word to me about that night since.  I've never forgotten that visceral reaction, but I've tried to quiet the voices asking questions like, "Well, what is the point of it all?"  It turns out that asking such questions leads not to answers, but anxiety.  Like, clinical, debilitating anxiety.

It was years before I was mentally and emotionally overwhelmed like that again.  I had gone to work at Cracker Barrel one day in April 1999, having spent much of the previous days like everyone else in the nation: reading and hearing about the tragic shootings at Columbine High School.  It was my understanding that a pair of social outcasts dressed in trench coats, armed themselves to the teeth and then spread violence and destruction amongst their classmates and teachers.  The truth is more complicated than that, of course, but that's the Reader's Digest version.  I was pretty much a social outcast in school, and in high school I had even discovered a fondness for trench coats and old school hats.  Everything I heard about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold left me wondering one question: "What made them different from me?"  I couldn't answer it.

I have no idea to this day why they did what they did.  More specifically, I have no idea why I didn't do what they did.  By nature, I am not violent.  I don't even enjoy watching football; I much prefer the more cerebral nature of baseball.  It would never cross my mind to respond to a situation by harming someone else, and that should be the answer to my question.  But then the question becomes, "Why don't I have that response?"  I saw so much of myself in Harris and Klebold that it genuinely frightened me, and it frightens me more not knowing what's different.  It bothers me, because of course it may be that whatever the distinguishing element of my nature is may only be temporary.  Maybe it's inevitable that I'll one day snap and I just haven't done it yet.  The average person doesn't even think about these things, but when you hear about a real life villain and they sound an awful lot like you, it can be rattling.  Take my word on it.

It's no secret that I've been depressed for the last several months.  Each night seems to bring with it a temptation to quit fighting altogether, and I keep finding a reason to distract myself, to postpone giving in.  This week, though, for reasons I don't wish to discuss here, has been particularly trying.  What matters isn't what has been going on, but rather its effect on me.  I've asked the same questions that Bradbury led me to demand in my youth.  Is this all there is to life?

When I contrast today with the society of, say, 60 years ago, I can see obvious signs of improvement.  We have gone from "whites only" water fountains to an America that was willing to elect Barack Obama as its president.  And while it's tumultuous (to say the least), we've seen lots of strides toward LGBT equality in my lifetime.  Prejudice is immortal, but at least acceptance for it may finally be threatened as an entire generation takes its place in the world declaring that we no longer accept race, religion, gender, etc. as valid reasons for ranking human beings.  Yet, when I contrast the world as it is today with the world as it was a century or two ago, I wonder: just what have we accomplished as a species?

We're still mired in territorial disputes and men and women die every day because other men and women want to hold a larger share of some scarce resource or to prove fidelity to a philosophical ideal.  Our grandparents's generation might marvel at what has become of us, but their grandparents would not.  They might be taken aback at our technological developments, but I doubt they would be surprised what we have done with our innovations.  I wonder, though, what they had envisioned we would actually do with ourselves once we no longer had to spend so much time in the fields each day to make sure we didn't starve.  Did they imagine a world populated by philosophers and artists, exploring the grand themes of life?  Or did they accurately predict that we would instead waste our time competing with one another for the opportunity to appease other people in exchange for wage labor?

Lorenzo de' Medici, patron of the arts
Painted by Girolamo Macchietti
I know as well as anyone the danger of romanticizing the past.  Yet, I think of the Italian Renaissance when Dante, Raphael, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, da Vinci, et al were widely admired for dedicating themselves to exploring the human condition.  Think what those minds could have accomplished with the resources taken for granted by anyone with an iPad!  Outside of the sciences, though, what real advances have there been for our entire species since their works emerged in the 14th Century?  Or, put another way, what do we have to show for ourselves after centuries of time?

And no fair citing the abolition of slavery and thwarting Hitler.  The artistic Masters of the Renaissance never lived in a world darkened by the evil of either.  Slavery existed in their time, yes, but it scarcely resembled the brutal, totalitarian incarnation known to us.  If anything, those two "feathers in our cap" (slavery and Hitler) represent exactly my point: all we've done is escalate the senselessness of humanity in recent centuries.  How has the pendulum swung in the other direction?  What strides have we made to accomplish anything positive?

Every child knows that you keep your hands, feet and objects to yourself, respect others and take your place in line.  Yet every major issue that continues to dominate our world proves that as adults, we violate those policies.  We can't even promote common welfare amongst one another because there are always people who wish there to be disparity.  There is no practical reason for starvation in the world.  We can produce enough food and technology exists to transport it to every place on Earth.  But we have millions at risk of literally starving to death because one group of people assigns a dollar amount to the resources they need, and another group of people have drawn lines on a map saying that the rest of us have no business helping people there.

I'm sorry, Teenage Self Who Read Fahrenheit 451.  I cannot answer your question what the point of it is.  I don't even believe there is a point anymore.  I honestly believe at this point that life itself is nothing more than "busy work," like when substitute teachers hand out worksheets in class that have nothing to do with the unit being taught by the regular teacher.  For a time, I think some of our people were onto something.  Then came the Industrial Revolution.  Now?  Now we simply walk through existence paying homage to our abstract masters and wait for Apple's annual conference announcing the fall lineup.

But, hey; if Harold Camping turns out to be right, the wait won't be much longer.

19 May 2011

Senator Rand Paul on Social Security & Medicare

This is the second entry in what I imagine will become an ongoing sub-series on this blog, in which I share with you the correspondence I receive from Senator Rand Paul, who represents yours truly in the United States Senate.  [The first entry was "I Am Selfishly Destroying America" and can be found here.  For future reference, all entries in this sub-set will be titled, "Senator Rand Paul on..." and you can always search for previous blog posts by the Rand Paul tag.]  Now, in fairness to Senator Paul, I cannot tell you just what he responded to because I put my name to any number of petitions throughout an average week.  Since his remarks are not specific to any particular legislative proposal, I cannot provide a clearer context at this time.
May 19, 2011
Dear Mr. McClain,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding Social Security and Medicare.  I appreciate hearing your thoughts on these issues.
Wasteful spending in Washington has drained the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.  The combination of massive debt, fewer active workers, and more retirees is pushing Social Security and Medicare into bankruptcy.
Though there are many problems with Social Security and Medicare, we still must keep our promises to current seniors.  With that said, we cannot continue to promise everything to everyone and attack anyone who says we need to be proactive about the problem facing us.  I have not been afraid to have an adult discussion of the practical and realistic changes to Social Security and Medicare that must take place.  Any changes I would support during the 112th Congress would only apply to younger Americans who have time to plan for the future.

Rand Paul, MD
United States Senator
Regarding the causes of SS/Medicare depletion, I would say this: no one had any business applying SS funds for anything other than SS. If we can't pay for textbooks in our classrooms with our Predator drone funding, then I want to know how we could pay for anything other than Social Security with Social Security money. The debt of the nation may be owed to Social Security, but how does Social Security owe a penny to our debt? It's supposed to be funded through taxes on worker wages. Put simply: if I have an I.R.A., how do I have less money in it if I have a mortgage? The money I contribute to the I.R.A. should simply accrue; it should not be conscious of any other part of my finances.

The larger issue, though, is Senator Paul's declaration that, "we cannot continue to promise everything to everyone," and that "any changes I would support during the 112th Congress would only apply to younger Americans who have time to plan for the future."

I was born 1 December 1978, so I don't really remember the Carter administration but it's my understanding that what crippled his standing with the American people was his admonition that the good times may be over, that we would need to set our sights lower and be willing to settle for less. We are Americans. Our entire culture is predicated on the very belief that tomorrow will be better than today. Ronald Reagan knew this, and more than anything else, it was his appeal to that philosophy that won him the presidency in 1980. Either Senator Paul needs to publicly denounce President Reagan's optimism, or he needs to tell me why that optimism should be abandoned.

Am I to understand that my parents's generation, my generation and the generation now in its infancy, are to be denied the security fought for and enjoyed by my grandparents's generation? What did we do to deserve this downgrade? I'm sorry our generation didn't walk both ways to school in our bare feet in the snow and save the world from Adolf Hitler. It never occurred to us we were supposed to feel too guilty to wear the shoes we were bought and to wage a war just to say we'd done it.

Less laborers on the books is a reason to renege on Social Security? The solution there is simple: tell your fat cat corporate owners they don't need to own a $5 million yacht they spend a week on each year when they could instead be putting Americans to work. Oh, but that would be social engineering and that would be a wrongful impediment to the freedom of the One Percenters...who are apparently exempt from the expectations of Senator Paul that those under 55 because they "have time to plan for the future."

What Are You Worth?

Standard disclaimer: I got C's in both my college economics courses, feel free to correct my logic, etc.  And yes, I'm fully aware that the cost of something does not equate to the value of that thing.  The intention here is not to assign an exacting formula for determining the value of one's time, but rather to explore an aspect of our economic and health care debates that I've not heard addressed.

Conventional economic wisdom holds that a laborer's wages are based on an equilibrium between the available supply for labor and the current demand for that labor.  Ergo, in a very real manner of speaking, the market tells you what you're worth.  You can increase your value through training, experience, etc., but you're still assigned a dollar value for the time you spend doing your job.  Note: this is not a context for a philosophical discussion about how we're all worth something that can't be measured in money.  Save that nonsense for another time when you can use that "something else" to buy goods and services.

I've been down with one of my most aggravating flares of the last year for about a week now.  Saturday I was invited to accompany a friend to a Cincinnati Reds game--one I dearly wanted to attend, mind you, as it featured the first confrontation this year between Johnny Cueto and the loathsome St. Louis Cardinals--but I couldn't even stand upright that day.  Sunday morning we went to the Louisville Science Center for Star Trek: The Exhibition, and I'm glad I took my cane, was pumped full of pain medication and that we got there early enough that it only took us about half an hour to navigate the entire thing.  I was entirely wiped out just from that inconsequential exertion.  I've spent most of the last several days on the couch trying to reach a point between lying down and sitting up that alleviates some of the pain, eating Jell-O and counting down between rounds of Prednisone.  It's a familiar story for my fellow Crohnies.

The last several nights I've contemplated going in for treatment.  The thing is, I know from experience that they would only give me IV fluids and steroids and send me home to do what I've already been doing.  I got to wondering: how much money have I saved by staying home and powering through this flare on my own couch with my own Jell-O and Gatorade, versus going in for treatment to come right back here?  Rather than rely on anecdotal figures, I did what anyone else in 2011 would do: I Googled "average cost hospital stay" until I found some information.

According to 2009 figures from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the average hospital stay ran 4.6 days and cost $30,655.  Mind you, that includes testing, etc., but obviously no one checks into a hospital because the Holiday Inn is crowded.  These figures don't even reflect surgical stays, much less ICU or anything exorbitant.  This is just for spending a few days in a room with some fluids and routine tests.

Let me ask you this: Outside of having to address your health, can you name one thing in your entire life where you would say that 4.6 days are worth $30,655?  If you told your family you were going to spend $30k in five days on anything, they would freak out.  You could tell them you were going to go around and build shelters for homeless orphans and they'd say that's an insane amount of money to spend in such a short time.  Even Charlie Sheen would be like, "How much money in how many days?"

As laborer or patient, our time is appraised in dollars.  Corporate owners insist that they can't afford American laborers, that we're too greedy and won't take "reasonable" pay wages.  Consider, though, that if you have to go into a hospital without having surgery or anything elaborate, your time spent will cost around $30,655 in 2009 dollars.  How can anyone not conclude that the American laborer is grossly under-valued and/or the American patient is obscenely over-charged?

And don't hand me that, "Well, what's your health worth to you?" nonsense.  Health is not a commodity or luxury.  It is an intrinsic element of life itself that has no regard for one's political ideals, spiritual beliefs, intellectual proclivities or anything else.  We are just as frail and prone to injury and illness as every human being to ever walk the Earth, and it is outright insanity to declare that somehow, in the 21st Century, that we've reached a point in our evolution as a species that we can now classify the needs of the human body as an indulgent luxury.

Bottom line: no one should be told that the cost of treating their modest health needs is worth more than they will earn in the course of an entire year.  If this is all abstract to you, then you've been fortunate and before you blast me for my failure to understand capitalism, take a moment to say aloud, "I have been lucky so far and I know it's not just because I'm a good person who made good choices."  Accidents happen to decent people.  Illness doesn't discriminate.  If and when those maladies come for you, what sense will you make of the bill and its declaration of what you as an individual are worth?

18 May 2011

On Comedy

Most of us think we're funny, because of course we say and do things that we think are funny.  I'm a little different, in that I believe I'm funny because I frequently make other people laugh, and often I do it without any conscious effort.  Maybe I'm just arrogant, but I'm going with the hypothesis.  In one of life's little ironies, though, this post about me being funny isn't really comedic.  Go figure.

Did I laugh at things in my youth and make others laugh?  I'm sure I did, but I honestly cannot recall any such instance.  I wasn't morose as a child, mind you; I was simply more curious than anything else.  It never crossed my mind until I reached middle school that there was anything to actually learn about comedy.  I just assumed that I would understand comedy better the more I knew about things in general.  That seemed self-evident to me, as I distinctly recall being told that I would find something funny if I had a working knowledge of the subject material.  Ergo, if I wanted to get jokes, I needed learn more about the world.

For Christmas 1990(?) I got a 13" Emerson TV for my bedroom.  It was astounding!  I no longer had to watch what anyone else wanted to watch in the living room.  I could watch whatever I wanted to watch.  I could stay in my room, watching TV while sketching or reading comic books, or anything else I wanted to do with my stuff.  I couldn't just clutter up the living room with my stuff just to watch TV; the expectation was that either I was going to watch TV, or I was going to play with my stuff and with a TV in my room I could do both!  It didn't take me long to discover that, from my bedroom, I could tune into TV stations from Lexington in addition to those in Louisville.

One of those Lexington stations (their Fox affiliate, as I recall) played Cheers re-runs Monday through Friday.  I had already become a sitcom viewer, but it wasn't until I began to really immerse myself in Cheers that I began to consciously study humor.  I learned there's a statute of limitations on comebacks.  If you're in, you can generally get a laugh even with weaker material.  If you're late, though, even a great line will fall flat and you may as well just keep quiet.  Cheers was full of biting put-downs, but it was never mean-spirited.  I laughed because it was clever, not because it belittled someone.  Furthermore, much of the humor came from characters fessing up to their own shortcomings as people.  I admire honesty, and I was fascinated to learn that you could get laughs at your own expense.  Given that I was already an outcast at school, this information came in handy.  It didn't take me long to prove that I was much better at making fun of myself than my classmates ever were, and I stole their comedic thunder.

I knew their names, but I always doubted they knew mine.
I once read some remarks by John Ratzenberger in which he credited the strength of the show to the fact that the writers had grown up vociferous readers.  Their literary-minded proclivities, Ratzenberger felt, helped create a comedic style more sophisticated than anything else on TV--which was largely written by people who had grown up with movies and other TV shows.  I think there's something to Ratzenberger's theory.

During the early 90s I also began watching Saturday Night Live.  Every viewer thinks "their" era was the best, but I think I can prove that the era I began watching really was the strongest.  Adam Sandler, Mike Myers and Chris Rock have conquered the world of comedy.  Phil Hartman and Chris Farley would have.  Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey, David Spade and Julia Sweeney are terrific.  And while Victoria Jackson isn't necessarily funny anymore, at least she's still a punch line.

Best Presidential parody ever.
"Weekend Update" was my foray into news-derived comedy, which was really a payoff for me as I'd begun watching Today before school most mornings.  I don't even know why, but I can tell you this: I fell in love with Katie Couric almost immediately.  I resented Bryant Gumble for talking when it could have been her addressing me.  Willard Scott was okay, though.  Hard to resent Ronald McDonald, you know?  It became a cycle; I would follow the news through Today and learn how it was funny on Saturday Night.  You can see how this conformed to my paradigm that learning more about the world would expand my sense of humor.

It's 7:18 in the morning. Shut up, Gumble. I want to hear the perky one!
The big event of 1993 was, of course, The Late Night War.  David Letterman, heir apparent to succeed Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show, was snubbed by NBC in favor of Jay Leno.  Dave defected to CBS, launching The Late Show in August 1993--just as I entered high school.  Conan O'Brien succeeded Dave as host of Late Nite.  Other late night talk shows abounded, including Chevy Chase's short-lived stint in the format.  I began watching Carson near the end of his run, sticking around to familiarize myself with Dave.  I was tuned in for the premiere of Late Show and ate it up.

It doesn't even matter what was said.  This image is funny and you know it.
From Letterman, I learned an additional pair of lessons.  Firstly, I learned that you can actually rescue a fallen joke by turning its failure into a joke.  Time and again, I would watch Letterman berate a lame joke from his monologue, until it had become the funniest gag in the show.  Secondly, I learned a lot about facial expressions from watching Dave.  Many a time, he could make me bust a gut without saying a word, because he could make and hold a face that was far funnier than anything he might have said.  I began to work on that aspect of humor.  At first it was hard to resist the urge to fire off a Cheers-style one-liner, but I quickly began to appreciate how rewarding it could be to make people laugh entirely with my eyes and my brow.

There's a bonus to facial expression humor: There's nothing for anyone to repeat.  Often, there's someone in a room who feels that they need to parrot whatever makes them laugh, as though their echo validates the humor or ensures that others are aware that they heard something they thought funny.  I can't explain the concept, as it's one of the few mental maladies from which I do not suffer.  I'm sure I should feel flattered to be repeated, but I just feel cheapened.  No one ever tries to make a face that they think is funny, though, which allows the moment to simply occur and then pass.  A bad joke can be resurrected until it's good, but I believe the good ones should be allowed to rest in peace.

I'm still convinced that the key to humor is understanding.  You can't know how to make a joke about something you don't understand.  I still adore news-derived humor; I sincerely believe Stephen Colbert is a satirist worthy of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.  I still like some TV sitcoms, but the truth is that Cheers is the only one that still makes me literally laugh no matter how many times I've seen a given episode.  Letterman still cracks me up, and I look forward to "Weekend Update."  I think Seth Meyers is the cleverest host they've had yet for that segment.

It may not be hyperbole to declare him the greatest satirist of his time.
There is one downside to cultivating this reflexive, comedic nature.  My manner is so diffusively lighthearted that it's often difficult for me to be taken seriously.  For instance, at my last doctor's appointment, I had my physician laughing so hard she had to wipe away a tear at one point...and this was a conversation in which I explained that Cymbalta had failed to treat my depression and that I had exhausted any hope of ever being "happy" or "normal."  Now, to clarify, my physician was not laughing at that specific part of our discussion; I don't want anyone misconstruing this anecdote and thinking her insensitive and cruel.  I can't even tell you now how I became funny, but I do recall impersonating a seal at one point.  Now, how the hell you go from discussing suicidal thoughts to impersonating a seal, I cannot tell you but I did it.  I couldn't help it.  It's just how I am.

It may not look it, but this was a profound movie.
Lest I become melancholy about this working against me, I try to remain mindful of the classic film, Sullivan's Travels.  The premise is that a filmmaker has tired of making comedies and sets out to make a dramatic picture worthy of critical acclaim so he can be taken seriously within the industry.  By the end of the film, though, he's endured more than enough misery to make him realize how valuable it can be to make other people laugh.  It's a terrific film with an endearing and charming message.  I won't lie: when I feel like I've joked my way out of being taken seriously, I become frustrated.  Eventually, it passes and I take some small solace in knowing that I made someone laugh.