Saturday, December 29, 2007

Tacos for Dinner

Growing up in Indiana, I spent a good chunk of time in the family basement. It was the place where I was free to watch eight hours of "M*A*S*H," "Gilligan's Island" and "Barney Miller"; glug bottle after bottle of Coke; ingest entire tins of Planter's Cheese Balls; and occasionally do something productive, like teach myself how to play guitar.

One night--I don't remember how old I was (I never remember how old I was)--I lay on the basement couch marinating in a thick depressive stew. About what, I have no idea. These were most likely my Catholic grade school years. I might have been ruing the principal's new rule that no one could kick the kickball more than three feet off the ground. Or the fact that Meredith Anzelc liked John Seckinger and not me. Or the alarming number of Frank Burnses in the world (compared to the scarcity of Hawkeye Pierces).

At any rate, I was in the muck. I didn't want to do anything. I hated everything. And I couldn't imagine myself ever being in a good mood again.

Then a voice came down the stairs: "Time for dinner!" My weak reply: "What are we having?" And then the answer:


I can't describe the feeling that came over me at that moment without resorting to bald cliche. A fog lifting? Sure. Shafts of sunlight pouring through the window? That'll do. All the demons left. All the darkness turned to light. Everything old was born anew.

It was at that moment that I learned two valuable lessons: 1) No bad mood is ever permanent; and 2) I must not be the deepest pool in the backyard. (This has become an inside joke with Anne. If I'm ever down, she'll ask if I want tacos for dinner.)

Yesterday, I went to my clinic and found out that I have strep throat. This is not exactly a life-threatening illness. But after dinner, I quarantined myself upstairs while Anne watched James. Around 8:00, I was lying down, eyes closed, trying to sleep but unable. I pondered my impending career midlife crisis. I thought about all the things we still need to do in the basement. I remembered the recent car accident involving my father and sister that thankfully resulted in no serious injuries. I was generally feeling tired, sick, lost and overwhelmed.

Then I heard the sound of little footsteps climbing the stairs. They stopped, cautiously, several feet from the bed. I considered pretending to be asleep to preserve my solitude, but couldn't.

"Hi, James."
"Hi, Daddy. Which PJs are you rooting for?"

I won't bother to explain what that question means. It doesn't matter. Because I knew. I know. And everything that had been pulling me down at that moment, released. And when that happens, you feel like your body is floating. And nothing can get to you.

Tacos for dinner.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

It Really Is

The statement "behind every cynic is an idealist" is proven by looking at a slice of my DVD collection: Dr. Strangelove, Rushmore, Office Space, High Fidelity, This Is Spinal Tap... It's a Wonderful Life.

Yes, I'm an unapologetic lover of this ultimate "Capracorn" flick. And for that, I apologize. I know there's a huge crowd out there that is sickened by its cheesy sentimentality, and I understand that. But here's the thing. I popped in the DVD last night and watched most of the movie, plus all of the special features. And you know what? It's not just a guilty pleasure; it's a really, really good movie.

Here are the surprising elements that don't get enough credit:

1. The whole "George sees the world without him in it" part... how far into the movie do you think that comes? Fifteen minutes? Thirty minutes? How about one hour and 45 minutes. I was shocked to realize this. In screenplay-ese, the "inciting incident" is Clarence the Angel starting to see George's life. The second act is entirely made up of all the things that lead George to contemplate suicide. Clarence doesn't actually arrive on the scene until nearly two hours into the movie. The part that everyone remembers is simply the third act.

2. It's actually a dark movie. George's brother nearly drowns. The pharmacist's son dies of the famous 1919 influenza. The people of Bedford Falls live in slums during The Great Depression. Think I'm crazy? One of the reasons the movie disappointed at the box office is that crowds at the time found the movie too depressing.

3. The acting is superb. Jimmy Stewart is convincing not only as the cheesy "Auld Lang Syne" singer at the end, but as the guy who insults his uncle, gets wasted, yells at his kids, threatens to beat up the teacher's husband, crashes a car and jumps off a bridge. Uncle Billy, spot on. The pharmacist, Old Man Gower, thoroughly convincing as a distraught father (the actor, H.B. Warner, had been typecast after playing Christ in The King of Kings 20 years earlier). Lionel Barrymore, truly wonderful.

4. The only reason the movie ever got to where it did was a clerical error that threw it into the public domain. That's why every TV station in America put it on television in the 80s.

5. The final script (many were commissioned and rejected before Capra took over) is well-structured, and the dialogue quite good.

Surprising for the times:
"What's George Bailey doing here?"
"He's making violent love to me, mother!"

"George, I'm an old man, and most people hate me. But I don't like them either, so that makes it all even."

And the scene where Potter tries to hire George... in my book, one of the best constructed and acted scenes you'll find anywhere, right down to the too-big chair and cigar.

The movie also brought some real innovations to movie-making, including the complicated way the production designers made snow (to that point, studios had simply painted Corn Flakes white, which led to sound problems during walking scenes). The Bedford Falls set... four acres in an L.A. sound stage, shot during an unprecedented heat wave.

The early scenes of kids sledding with snow shovels hit me differently now that I have a four-year-old. When James and I woke up this morning and he spotted the trees and sidewalks coated with a sticky snow, we promptly bundled up after breakfast, went to the front yard, made a snowman and went sledding.

"Daddy, do you know what? It's just TWO DAYS until Christmas Eve! Isn't that great?"
"Yes, it is. It really is."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Years ago, I wrote a horrible short story about a guy whose desperate desire to be an artist is paralyzed by his self-consciousness and normality. The first scene was at a place like the old Loring Café. The main character watches this sensual, exotic woman play guitar and sing. He is Salieri to her Mozart, and there's nothing he can do about it.

I've always known that the main character is (painfully obviously) the author. But over the last year, I've come to realize that the woman playing the guitar is Diablo Cody. Diablo and I both write screenplays. We both came to Minnesota from Midwestern states that begin with "I." But I while I played saxophone in the high school marching band and didn't kiss a girl until I was 15, Diablo Cody, in addition to being a fabulous writer, was a former stripper.

I'm thinking about this because Anne and I went to see "Juno" yesterday with a mixture of expectations and pre-conceived notions. On one level, I just wanted to see a good movie, and if the New Yorker likes something (which they do about once a year), I have to see it. On another level, I wanted to kill its buzz. I wanted to hate it.

The verdict: I liked "Juno" right away, then I didn't, then I really did. I couldn't help it.

The ultra-smart, sarcastic, ironic, jaded-yet-still-innocent main character is a standout creation. One could argue that she's a carbon copy of the girl in "Ghost World," but she owns something unique even within that micro-thin indie character paradigm.

Then about 40 minutes in, I remember thinking, "Okay, witty banter will only get you so far. The writer is in love with her dialogue, the character is becoming tiresome, and the movie is in danger of becoming a 90-minute standup routine by a 16-year-old." This was my chance to scream "overrated!" and feel good about myself.

And then Diablo Cody foiled me again.

The movie and the characters took some interesting turns, and by the end, I realized that I had witnessed one of the most totally-unlikely-yet-somehow-believable love stories I had ever seen. All the attention will go to the dialogue. It should go to the characters. I don't remember any screenwriter so deftly making me like one character and hate another, and then completely reversing my opinion about those same characters—secondary characters, mind you—just an hour later. Damn, that's good.

Yesterday was a great day. I took a day off of work. I sat in my favorite theater, with my favorite person on her birthday. I watched a great movie with stale popcorn and a Coke. It would have been better if the people around me were laughing and crying at something I wrote, but it was good just the same.

Awfully, awfully good.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Carver Indeed

It took awhile, but I recently finished an anthology of short stories by Raymond Carver. I had read him in the past, but I'll admit that it was finally watching Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (which was based on Carver) a few months ago that inspired a deeper read.

I've recently heard that maybe Carver's editor deserves much of the credit for his success. Wherever the proper acclaim lies, it is well deserved. Not a word wasted here. Carver's writing has always conjured images of sculpting for me, and "carver" seems almost a too-perfect name for the author.

What's maddening about the man, though, is that he leaves me powerless to describe his appeal. It's easy to say that Edward Hopper is my favorite artist, because he captures a kind of uniquely American loneliness that no one else can even touch. It's easy for me to say that I'm drawn to the songwriting of Ray Davies because he has a certain cynical idealism and "two steps removed" perspective that I identify with.

But Carver? I'm at a loss.

Most, but not all, of his stories aren't much on plot. A boy goes fishing with a friend. A man is hostile toward, then becomes enchanted with, his wife's blind friend. A recovering alcoholic relates his experiences at a halfway house.

You read through the stories, navigating what seems like the mundane. You get to the end and you can't believe it's over. You mean after all that, the guy decides to rake his neighbors leaves? What the hell?

All I know is that he's onto something. It's become passe, cliche and a bunch of other French words for which Blogger will not let me add the accent to the "e"... to describe great literature as something that captures human nature, or that archaic term, "the human condition." But that's what still works for me, and all I know is, Carver did that. He dissected some element of that nature that no one else has in quite the same way. He did it without wasting a single word. And then he went outside and raked the leaves.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Kill Mr. C

Okay, one more "agency" thing, and then I'm back to separating my personal and professional lives. This is a 60-second spot we recently did for a client. More on the client and why I believe in what they do later.

Please offer your brutally honest feedback.

(A handful of you will recognize the music at the end. Some of you will recognize the actor, but try not to think of him as Santa Claus from my previous post.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mojo Risin'

We interrupt this thlog to bring you a promotional plug for my agency.

ASI always does something creative for the holidays, and this year it's a song, music video and five-minute film called "Santa Lost His Mojo." It's about how ASI saved Christmas. We are an egoless agency.

I play two roles: the agency branding guy trying to be diplomatic with a surly, gin-swilling Santa (in the movie), and (in the music video) the creepy guitarist with arrows Sharpied onto his face who thinks he's in a real rock 'n' roll band.

If you hate it, I had nothing to do with it. If you like it, I'll tell you I had everything to do with it. If you can pick out the classic rock allusion in my guitar solo during the "mojo risin' part," I'll give you 100 points.

To watch it all, click here.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

(h)Accuracy, Inc.

Here's an idea for a business that will never exist. First, the rationale.

1. It's no secret that the Internet has decentralized and specialized media of all kinds, including news and information. We used to have three major networks, a handful of radio stations, some national and local magazines and newspapers. Now, if you're a Methodist 33-year old female from Topeka who loves beagles, plays cribbage, knows the nuances of dry sherry and collects twisty straws, there's a blog, a glossy mag and a Facebook group just for you.

The point: Americans can now go through their entire lives exposed only to the information that already interests them, and that they already agree with.

2. Thousands of people make really good livings based solely on the perception that they can predict the future. I'm not talking about psychic mediums (media?). I'm talking about every expert on every topic... including (taking my image as a small example), war, sports, weather and money.

The point: The actual accuracy of these people has very little effect on their employability. The perception of their authoritativeness does.

In short, I am utterly convinced that the people perceived as authorities on most topics are not actually the most accurate. And from now on, I want accuracy. We need a central source in our fragmented, ultra-specialized world that trumps perception with reality. We have bond raters; why not accuracy raters?

- Richard Perle sounded authoritative when he said, “A year from now I’d be surprised if there’s not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush.” He should never be able to get a job in politics again. (Actually, maybe if Guiliani gets elected, he'll build the square himself.)

- Sports TV and radio are littered with new-generation Jimmy the Greeks like Sean Salisbury and Mike Ditka who predict every game in the NFL season. Are they more accurate than my four-year-old? If not, bye bye.

- Weathercasters stand in front of acid-trip graphics and earn God knows what (half a million a year in the Twin Cities? I have no idea...) Do you know which local meteorologist is the most accurate? Why not? They publish five-day forecasts every day... the data are overwhelming.

- Jim Cramer is one of how many people raking in millions based on the perception that they can help you know what the stock market is going to do tomorrow. Who rates them based on their results and exposes every bad one? Anyone?

A simple rating system regardless of industry or subject matter: 1-10, 10 being the most accurate. You pay a mere $1 a day to access a website. There, you find out who is actually wrong or right, genius or fraud, prescient or retarded.

Now, the question is this: Would it be worth it to you? And if you knew who was most accurate, most often, would you trust them with your vote, your money, your life?

P.S. I basically make a living being trusted to predict how people will respond to products, services and ideas in what is known as "the marketing world." Please don't rate me.

Friday, November 30, 2007

By the Interest Vested in Me, I Now Pronounce You...

During the recent YouTube Republican presidential debate, Anderson Cooper brooded into the camera lens and said, "We're not going to just analyze the horse race; we're going to cover the issues." Right. Like they did during the most recent Democratic debate, in which (from what little I saw), Joe Biden and Bill Richardson gave the most complete and interesting answers to the questions, and the "coverage" focused on who got flustered, who stumbled, who sighed, who perspired, who attacked Hillary and how.

An analogy occurred to me. When it comes to something like sports... like when Fox knows it's going to be televising the World Series, the network absolutely knows what it wants to have happen: Dodgers-Yankees, Mets-Yankees... the matchups that have good drama, involving big-market teams, that will draw high ratings and allow it to maximize its advertising revenues.

The frustrating thing for the network is this: It has no actual control over who makes it to the World Series. So if it's Padres-Indians, they're SOL.

A presidential election is the same way. It's pretty clear that all the networks want Hillary vs. Rudy. And why not? The storyline is interesting. Two politicians from big-market New York, different styles, polarizing this, 9/11 that.

But here's the difference: In the case of a Presidential debate, the networks CAN play a role in deciding who gets there. How? By anointing front-runners, by focusing on fundraising prowess, by televising a debate but ignoring the substance of every answer, talking about the "horse race," and treating high-quality (but, apparently less interesting, though I beg to differ) candidates like Joe Biden as if they were invisible.

Is this a conspiracy? No. The networks aren't in some kind of back-room collusion to do this. There's no need. They all need to sell advertising, and they all come to the same obvious conclusion on which storyline is going to get the most attention. Yawn.

There's just one small problem: It's not objective reporting, and it's not good for the country. It's like rigging the game, and the networks are making good candidates like Biden and Richardson into the Black Sox of 1919.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Conspiracy Conspiracy

I feel sorry for the word "conspiracy." It's overused, misused and abused. And the truth is, it actually applies to very little.

My F12 Macbook dictionary rather blandly defines "conspiracy" as "a secret plan by a group of people to do something unlawful or harmful." Fair enough, but I think true conspiracy bulks up the group aspect. For a conspiracy to really be a conspiracy, it can't be three middle schoolers plotting to embarrass the red-headed kid with the acne by writing "pizza face" on his locker with Clearasil. Conspiracy on a grand scale involves groups of big, powerful organizations... not just people.

Unfortunately, many of us use the word "conspiracy" to describe things that aren't conspiracies at all. Is Hillary Clinton the victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy? Absolutely not. The vast majority of the right wing hates her outwardly and makes no secret about it. Why conspire?

Is global warming a conspiracy, as nut jobs (who also happen to be U.S. Senators) like James Inhofe would have you believe? Surely you've heard of the powerful Egghead Mafia. Psst: Wind turbines manufacturers are the new dry cleaners, wink wink.

But the main beef I have with conspiracies is the fallacy that anyone is organized enough and willing to take the risks to pull off a really big one. Yes, I'm talking 9/11. Someone recently said to me, "Can you imagine what people in this country would do if they knew that 9/11 was 50 years in the making among the CIA and other organizations?"

The answer is supposed to be "rise up and revolt," but that's exactly the case against the conspiracy. Believing any conspiracy to exist on a grand scale is inadvertently, and grossly, flattering. Anyone near the top of even a small organization knows that every organization, despite its outward appearances, is shockingly, um... disorganized.

Then there's the risk. All those groups, all those people, all you need is one little smoking gun and the whole thing unravels. You think people--especially those evil corporate types who've made a living understanding the pros and cons of risk--would take on that kind of risk?

Ah, you might say, but you assume that law enforcement, the media and other balancing forces are outside the conspiracy, when really they're part of it.

And then, we must stop talking. Because the truth is, the organized forces of evil in our species pale in comparison to the forces of disorganized laziness.

And that, friends, is actually cause for optimism.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Consumption Without Consequence

A good friend just returned from a trip overseas. He travels a lot both personally and professionally... Germany, India, China, Vietnam, Israel and Egypt in just the last year or so. He's reluctant to be one of those people who thinks "everything's better in Europe" (even though he's lived there on two separate occasions), but he did relate two interesting tidbits to me yesterday:

1) No matter where he's been, the people in every country (we're talking the professional class) share one belief: George W. Bush is a moron; and

2) In Germany, they just can't understand why the United States can't stop spending money it doesn't have.

The former point has been beaten to death, and consensus on the matter is almost as concrete as gravity or man-made global warming. The latter point is far more interesting anyway, because it refers to something more permanent than a single president.

I asked him if the Germans he talked to were referring to the government or the people. "Both," he said.

It's true, of course. The government runs up debt on revenues it doesn't have. The people spend, spend, spend way beyond their means... using credit to buy non-essential items, taking on interest-only mortgages, guzzling fuel whose supply (even the Wall Street Journal acknowledges as of last week) will soon hit its peak--and, let's never forget, directly funds Wahhabi-based terrorism in Saudi Arabia.

I remember a phrase coming to mind when W. told everyone to be patriotic in the wake of 9/11 by continuing to shop:

"Consumption without Consequence"

I had hoped that I could introduce this phrase into the political lexicon so that certain factions on the Left could use it to hammer certain factions on the Right. That hasn't happened and never will, of course. I'm no Frank Luntz.

But if I could sum up an American trait that has now officially turned from childishly amusing to just plain dangerous, that would be it. We are a nation that believes in consumption without consequence. No, it's not just the stereotype of the SUV-driving suburbanite; it's all of us except the very poor. It's not going to change without a rude awakening, and I suspect that awakening is coming a lot sooner than we'd like to believe.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

LangAlert: Nerb Edition

My apologies for offering another LangAlert so soon, but this one is fresh off the airwaves. As I was flossing my teeth just two hours ago, the following sneaked out of my shower radio and clobbered my left ear:

"... And this has allowed the idea to kind of spiderweb throughout the city."

This is another in the growing tradition of "nerbing": using nouns as verbs to communicate something in a seemingly original way. Other examples include "ponding" (as in, "Beware of ponding rain after this storm system passes through!") and "plate" (as in, "The food is of mediocre quality, but it is plated beautifully!")

"Spiderweb" as a verb was new to me, but I have to admit something on this one: If I look at it as an evocative way to communicate something quickly (something I appreciate as a hack screenwriter), it actually worked for me. I didn't have the usual cringe, throw-up-in-my-mouth-a-little moment. I got a picture, and it made sense. Sure, the person could have said "spread," but "spiderweb" is actually, in a strange way, more precise.

Which leaves me conflicted, because I hate nerbs (as well as their cousins, nadjectives and vouns), but I also enjoy making up words if I think they're prevocative (precise and evocative).

Spiderweb. Hmmm... I'll have to noodle this one for awhile. In the meantime, feel free to word an opinion of your own.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Most Disturbing Trend of All

I've noticed something over the last three years that I think is the most disturbing and annoying trend in America.

* Crocs? No. They're cute on kids, and adults will feel adequate embarrassment in 5-10 years.

* The tendency of sports radio personalities to stutter on the word "I"? No. That's been around a long time; I've just never heard a good explanation for it.

* Banner ads with annoying and irrelevant animations? Not quite, although I've noticed they're not going away, so they must work.

What I've noticed is that nobody listens anymore.

I'm serious. I know this sounds like the mutterings of a cranky retiree, but it's true. Sit in a meeting in any organizational setting in America, and what you will witness is an absolutely stunning lack of communication.

The main culprit: interruption. There's simply no shame in doing it anymore. In a meeting, rather than letting others around the table begin and complete thoughts, it is now acceptable to jump in whenever and wherever one chooses--even right in the middle of a sentence uttered by the person paying for the meeting.

The effect snowballs, as others in the room realize that UNLESS THEY INTERRUPT, they will not get a chance to speak. This leads to a kind of "interruption arms race," in which people struggle to interrupt more loudly and quickly than others in the room, which in turn leads to some seeming to plan ahead of time what they want to say when they interrupt.

When it's all over, everybody leaves having spoken but not listened. Each person has a completely different interpretation of what happened in the meeting and what is supposed to happen after the meeting. The next time the group gets together, they are astounded at the number and scope of their misunderstandings.

Two things are primarily to blame here: technology and the media. In my own work life, between the DING of emails, the PLOP of instant messages, the high-tech "RING" of my land line, the Kashmir mp3 ring of my cell phone, the BEEPing of text messages on my cell phone, and good old-fashioned people dropping by my office, I probably scrape together at most 30 seconds of continual concentration on any one thing. Last Monday, I jotted down the number of different projects I'm working on (even for a few minutes) for just that day, and it came to 15. Trying to do 15 different things when you're interrupted every 30 seconds is a recipe for insanity. And my situation is typical. Life is full of interruptions. It's no wonder we end up doing it ourselves.

Second, the media. Media trainers make a living teaching politicians and CEOs to see the media as nothing more than a tool to get out their message. I went through this training myself more than 10 years ago. I was asked, "What three things do you want people to know about product x?" I listed three things. "Okay, I'm going to ask you questions. No matter what I ask, by the time you're done answering, you MUST have communicated at least one of those three things."

It was damn near impossible. "Why is the sky blue?" "That's a good question, Bill. I'm not sure I can answer why the sky is blue, but I do know that it sure looks bluer when you use Acme window cleaner..."

This is why politicians sound so canned: They're actually trained not to listen. Or, more accurately, they're trained to listen, but only for one thing: the best opening through which to drive their agenda. Alas, we are all turning into the people we claim to despise: media-savvy politicians.

Can you hear me now?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

LangAlert: "Move-Forward Basis"

According to the Consumer Price Index, prices rose a significant 0.3 percent in September. The increase was blamed largely on rising food and energy costs.

In other news, according to the CLI (Corporate Linguaflation Index), verbal bullshit rose an even more aggressive 1.5 percent for the same month. The rise was blamed largely on the increasing use of the term "move-forward basis" in track-lit conference rooms throughout the country.

Surely you've heard this one. Instead of saying something clear and intelligible, like, "Okay, let's talk about where we go from here"... we now get, "Let's discuss the types of strategies and tactics we need to utilize to achieve success on a move-forward basis." (The kissing cousin "go-forward basis" can also be utilized... um, used.)

Move. Forward. Basis. This is another case where laziness does not account for change. (Otherwise, the term would be shorter and easier to say.)

It's really about packaging. Someone somewhere (I'm going to call him Ned) discovered that not every element of the abstract concept of "the future" had been fully colonized and packaged. "Sure," he thought, "we talk about tomorrow, looking ahead, planning for next quarter... but has anyone ever packaged the specific idea of 'what we're going to do once this meeting is over'?"

"A-ha!" screamed Ned. "An opportunity! I'm going to call this a 'move-forward basis.' It's catchy. It has action. It's dynamic. It sounds positive. It makes it seem like we're doing something whether we are or not. It expresses the intention to act, and that's almost as good as action itself. In fact, it's better, because there's no risk of failure."

And Ned used the term in his next meeting, and every accelerated MBA holder in the room thought, "Wow, that sounded good." And it spread like a virus.

Well, I'd like to banish this bit of linguistic flatulence to the ash heap of history. There. Done. Now, what should we do next?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Your Dog Does Not Understand You

Since my previous post generated some good controversy, I'd thought I'd try to win people back over by ripping on dogs.

Not dogs, really, dog owners. I like dogs. I like cats better, which I know is a very endearing quality. I like cats better because they seem pretty pissed off most of the time, which probably has something to do with the fact they've gone from being worshiped in ancient Egypt to having to pee in a sandbox next to the water heater.

Dogs are great, too. Loyal, earnest, playful, all that stuff. But dog owners baffle me, because no matter how much evidence they're presented with that their beloved pet does not understand anything they're saying beyond simple commands, they continue to talk to Fito like a human being.

My ornery neighbor when I was a kid, Estel Brockus, had a small yippy canine named Judd, who would bark at the air and scare the crud out of school kids walking down the alley. "Judd, stop that! Judd! JUDD!!" Didn't work.

I know people who have dogs that are clearly out of control... jumping on people when they walk in the door, trying to steal their food, barking over conversation. They talk to the dog in a rational way, and nothing changes. I sit there and think, "Why don't you simply remove the dog from the situation?"

Two hours later, they finally do. "Okay, Barkley, you're going outside!" (Brilliant idea!)

And the thing is, the longer people have had their dogs, the more likely they are to do this, and I guess this is the part that really does baffle me. The more you know someone, the more you should know about who they are, what they respond to and how they behave. Not with dogs.

Cats are different. Oh, they understand what you're saying. They just don't care. But at least we have an understanding.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Why We're Doomed

A catastrophic drought has gripped the American Southeast for months. Last I heard, the city of Atlanta was less than 90 days from running out of water.

I'll say that again: The city of Atlanta was less than 90 days from running out of water.

That means no other water. No "reserve" source that kicks in. No diverting the pipes from somewhere else. It means Atlanta is on track to experience a day when, like, millions of people would turn on their faucets and nothing comes out.

When I heard that Sonny Perdue, the governor of Georgia, was hosting a ritual to pray for rain, I was disturbed enough. Then when I clicked the AOL quick poll and found that 70 percent of respondents think this is a helpful thing to do, I just about put the pistol in my mouth.

That's it. We're done.

P.S. I've since realized that maybe Governor Perdue is doing this because he knows that the forecast calls for rain in a few days, so he can say, "See, God answered our call!" Yes, we're done.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

MasterDebates: Smoking Ban

Welcome to the second segment of MasterDebates, an occasional feature on BBS in which I discuss issues of the day with myself. As always, today's masterdebaters are Bellamy Grant and Grant Bellamy. Welcome, gentlemen.

Bellamy Grant: Good to be here, me.
Grant Bellamy: That goes for me, too.

Let's get right to it. Like many other states (and even entire countries), Minnesota is instituting a statewide smoking ban. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Bellamy Grant: It's a good thing. Even some smokers agree with that. Look, we're talking about one of the most diabolical products ever devised. If some people want to use it and commit suicide, I guess that's their right. But we don't live in a vacuum. Any time you smoke a cigarette, it affects other people. That means "public policy" is an appropriate consideration. And a smoking ban is good public policy.

Grant Bellamy: There's something more important than "public policy" here. It's called property rights. There's only one real way to look at this issue, and that's from the bar owner's perspective. A bar owner should be able to decide whether or not people in his or her establishment can engage in a completely legal activity. Period.

Bellamy Grant: I'll admit that that way of thinking sounds logical, but it's not that simple. People who own bars and restaurants can't do absolutely anything they want. They can't knowingly poison one of their patrons. They can't store plutonium. They can't cover the floor with shards of glass.

Grant Bellamy: What's your point?

Bellamy Grant: My point is that bars and restaurants are private businesses, yes, but like any private business, they're regulated, and for good reason.

Grant Bellamy: If they did any of the ridiculous things you're talking about, they would go out of business without the assistance of "regulation."

Bellamy Grant: Sure, those are extreme examples, but there are also OSHA regulations, fire regulations. Surely these are good things, right? People like to know that when they go to a bar or restaurant, their food wasn't handled by someone who didn't wash their hands after using the bathroom, eh? Or are you saying that sanitizing after defecation should be left up to the individual to decide?

Grant Bellamy: Of course not. The bar owner should have that rule.

Bellamy Grant: And what if he doesn't?

Grant Bellamy: Then I won't go there.

Bellamy Grant: How will you know?

Grant Bellamy: I'll ask.

Bellamy Grant: What if he's not obligated to tell you?

Grant Bellamy: Then I won't go to his friggin' bar!

Bellamy Grant: Sure is easier and more efficient if there's a law. Then you don't have to go through all that work.

Grant Bellamy: Okay, fine. Let's say for the sake of argument that OSHA and fire regulations are acceptable. What's the slippery slope on the other end? Again, smoking is a LEGAL activity. Should governments be able to ban legal activities in private business? Should they be able to tell a bar owner what he can charge for a glass of wine?

Bellamy Grant: Sex is a legal activity. It's not legal to have sex in a bar.

Grant Bellamy: Have you ever been to a nightclub on First Avenue?

Bellamy Grant: Point taken.

Grant Bellamy: Look, if our big concern is public health, why not ban bars all together? Why are we addressing tobacco and ignoring alcohol? Is alcohol a healthy substance to consume? If we want to prevent cirrosis of the liver, we should ban alcohol. For that matter, we should ban fast food. You're going to play the "health care costs" card? The mantle of "public health" is far too wide open. If you're going to use it as the linchpin for an argument, then you have to take it all the way. Go back to Prohibition. Force people to work out. Make cigarettes illegal. Close McDonald's. Live in Singapore. Summer in Riyadh.

Bellamy Grant: I think the difference is second-hand smoke. You can point to plenty of things that are unhealthy, but they don't directly damage the health of people around the user like second-hand smoke.

Grant Bellamy: Really? I'd say if you talked to kids and spouses who've been beaten by drunken dads, they might say "second-hand alcohol" is very much a reality. Not to mention people who've been killed by drunk drivers. I'm not positive about this, but I would guess that alcohol consumption directly correlates with all forms of violence, including rape. Sure, you may not be breathing something into your lungs. But I think an abused wife will take a husband who only smokes versus one who drinks.

Bellamy Grant: So you're advocating for banning everything now?

Grant Bellamy: I'm just saying, be consistent. Personally, I'd rather make my own choices, wouldn't you?

Bellamy Grant: Okay, yet another slippery slope argument. So if, as you wish, we let people behave as they want to regardless of its effect on others, why not legalize everything... drugs, prostitution... hey, rocket launchers for everyone!

Grant Bellamy: I'd rather have that than a society that takes away personal freedoms in the name of Puritanical fallacy.

Guys, we're running out of time. Bottom lines.

Bellamy Grant: Bottom line, smoking bans save money, save lives, improve public health and make your children less likely to pick up smoking. Smoking bans good.

Grant Bellamy: Bottom line, smoking bans are regulation run amok. They're random, irrational and violate private property rights. Smoking bans bad.

Great, now let's get a beer.

Bellamy Grant/Grant Bellamy: Agreed.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Difference #3

This is the third installment in an ongoing series in which I attempt, as diplomatically as possible, to shed light on the actual differences between liberals and conservatives. For previous "Differences," see below:

Difference #1
Difference #2

Introducing Difference #3:

Liberals need to feel smarter than everyone else; conservatives need to feel tougher than everyone else.

Like any club or religion, political parties and their accompanying schools of thought are "superiority" vehicles. In keeping with my overall feeling that the real culture war being waged in America is one of intelligence vs. masculinity, each of those terms falls along party lines.

Liberals feel better informed about what's going on the world and have a strong trust of academia, especially when it comes to issues like the environment. They feel smarter about non-American cultures. Smarter about food quality and health. Smarter about urban planning and overconsumption. Smarter about corporate power. Smarter about energy. To them, conservatives are ignorant or just plain dumb. They revere genius and wit... Einstein and Jon Stewart.

Conservatives eschew academia in favor of think tanks and research conducted or sponsored by 501(3)c organizations. But mostly, their positions are about being tough. Tough on crime. Tough on terrorism. Tough on welfare and entitlement programs. Tough on taxes. Tough on the U.N. Tough on panhandlers. Tough on regulation. To them, liberals are overly idealistic are just plain weak. They revere optimism and masculinity... Ronald Reagan and Ted Nugent.

The key to finding any decent debate is locating members of each group who don't appear to be overcompensating.

Monday, October 29, 2007

I Hate Conventional Wisdom

So I'm sitting in a coffee shop trying to get some work done, and this guy comes up to the counter and orders a coffee. In a loud voice, so everyone can hear, he says to the barista, "I don't know why everyone cares about global warming! It's a good thing! Look, it's a beautiful day! You're getting more business because normally everyone would be in the skyways!"

I glance over, hoping this guy is being ironic. No such luck. He's a 50-something serious crank eager to impress.

After the barista says something thoughtful-sounding that I can't quite make out, the guy retorts, "I don't know about that. I'm just saying, I don't think we need to be making such a big deal about it. But that's just probably due to my natural contrarian instincts."

Wonderful. Well played. If there's one thing that's uniquely American, it's the idea of being ignorant and proud of it. You're a "contrarian." Good for you. That makes you the intellectual equivalent of my four-year-old son. Go form the "anti-intellect" party... which, you might be surprised to learn, would have a lot in common with Communism.

* * *

An addendum to this item. One of the most insidiously anti-intellectual argument made among global warming deniers is this:

"Hey, I can't predict the weather tomorrow. How can I know what's going to happen 10, 20, 50 years from now?"

As a friend of mine pointed out (a friend who, by the way, is a Catholic, pro-life, pro-business Target Corp. director with a University of Chicago MBA), this argument has it exactly backwards. It's actually easier to predict things like weather, Target revenues and the Dow Jones Industrial average 10 or 20 years from now than it is to predict what they will be tomorrow.

The Best Movie No One Has Seen

It's called "The Big Picture." It came out in 1989. It was Christopher Guest's directorial debut. And I just found this scene on YouTube, which is maybe Martin Short's greatest performance and a classic example of the funny man/straight man technique. (Kevin Bacon's reactions are every bit as good... as as important... as Martin Short's quirkiness.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Paranoia the Destroyer

No, this is not another post on The Kinks. It's a post enabled by The Kinks.

- Bill Maher threw out a stat last week I hadn't heard yet: 23 percent of the North Pole has melted in just the last two years. I haven't had that independently verified, but I did find this: “There will probably be about two-thirds as much sea ice this September as there was 25 years ago, a good indication that something significant is happening with the climate.”

- Did that last fact sink in, so to speak?

- Today someone in my office collapsed into the most violent fit of wretching I've ever seen. He's stable, but had to be removed by ambulance. He's a triathlete with known ulcer, liver and neck issues. But one of the likely culprits: viral meningitis, which is currently keeping another co-worker on the sidelines.

- My son stayed home from day care today complaining of a headache.

- A superbug has killed thousands of people and is showing in kids' ear infections--and there's no antibiotic for kids that kills it.

- Are you still thinking about that North Pole stat? You should be.

- The number of people now having to evacuate Southern California is over half a million.

- If climate change has contributed to the dryness that has made these fires so extreme, the massive burning of wood due to the fires is one of those great "feedback loops" that only accelerates the problem.

- I watched BBC News last night, and (shock!) CO2 emissions are growing far greater than we even thought they wood, er... would.

- I finally had that basement cinderblock issue checked out. Guess what? We have a mold problem! Awesome!

- Atlanta is about to run out of water. Repeat: Atlanta is about to run out of water.

- We don't have anything to worry about. Anderson Cooper is doing his series "Our Planet in Peril" in an awesomely minimalist blue T-shirt. (And it's sponsored by ConocoPhillips.)

- I'm serious. They really are a sponsor. You should see the web ad with the beautiful flowers.

- I fell asleep, then I woke feeling kind of queer. Lola looked at me and said,"Ew, you look so weird." And she said, "Man, there's really something wrong with you. One day you're gonna self-destruct."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Instant (Un)(Dis)(Non)Gratification?

Last Tuesday night, while waiting for some copies at the Kinko's on Grand and Snelling, I wandered into their new book section and picked up Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. A week later, I'm about 15 pages from finishing it. My snap judgment on a book about snap judgments: I don't know if it's genius or horse hockey.

All I had previously read from Gladwell was a New Yorker piece on dependency ratios that caught my eye because it ran counter to the conventional wisdom on Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" economic miracle. Liberals credited it to government subsidizing of higher education. Conservatives pointed to the slashing of corporate taxes. All could agree that a massive influx of European Union capital had a, uh... profound effect. But Gladwell argued that the true reason lay behind the legalization of birth control, which created a larger ratio of working-age people to the old and the young (dependents)... and this is always the real formula for economic growth. He made a convincing case.

Blink is similarly convincing... addictive even. I found it hard to put down from the moment I saw it in Kinko's. But that's precisely the problem. I've become more and more skeptical about anything that is instantly riveting.

It started with music: how many songs or albums that were great on the very first listen actually pass the test of time... and how many that seem average at first turn out to be genius? I couldn't stand Bob Dylan until I was about 25, but I stayed up nights reading Dan Brown's Angels & Demons. Sugar is instantly gratifying. I hated my first coffee.

As for Blink, as of right now it's one of the more fascinating books I've ever come across. Gladwell is an incredible storyteller, writer and organizer of information. And this is exactly why I'm suspicious. Anyone with those three gifts has the ability to make compelling arguments regardless of whether or not they actually hold any truth. Just look at Karl Rove.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Talking S***

I'm sick of this shit.

Anne and I went to a Dudley Riggs show a couple of weeks ago. I love sketch comedy. I admire improv artists. Every year I have at least one dream that I'm a cast member of Saturday Night Live... only to realize that I haven't actually been used in over a year. Call it Tim Meadows Syndrome.

But this night at the Brave New Workshop, when the troupe was doing its traditional Friday night improv after the main show, I noticed something. One of the improvisers dealt with every uncomfortable improv moment by making a shit joke. It's no wonder. He got laughs every time.

It made me realize that the entire evolution of comedy is really kind of a poovolution. I mean, I don't want to sound like a prude here. There's a lot of bathroom humor that I'm powerless to.

But just how long can shit be funny? Seriously, did you know that humans defecate? Really, they do. Isn't that hilarious? Babies do it. Teenagers to it. Adults do it. Hey, grandma does it.

Note: This rant does not target the SNL fauxmercial, "Oops, I Crapped My Pants!" which was hilarious.

Comedy scholars will say that all comedy is based on either tragedy or embarrassment. So I guess as long as bowel movements are embarrassing, we'll continue to get poo jokes. Because hey, that shit is funny.

But after we've covered everything there is to cover about sex, voiding, pinching loaves and masturbating... where do we go from there? I think it's a legitimate scatological, er, eschatological comedic question.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Feel the Love

Approximately 48 hours ago, Anne and I were taking in the salty air on a sailboat ride on the Atlantic Ocean, just outside Nantucket Bay. Today, I came back to work and found my entire office shrinkwrapped.

This was no ordinary Saran Wrap job, mind you. This was careful, thorough and creative. The door, yes. The entire desk, of course. But also each lamp, the phone, the little thingy my laptop sits on, my keyboard, the cord coming from my keyboard.

Plus, my New Yorker calendar, the multiplug on the floor, the light switches... that's right... SWITCHES. My guitar, my racquetball racket, the heating duct above my desk, each and every family photo on my window sills, and even parts of the tree growing in my office.

All of this was so impressive that I didn't even touch it for several hours, choosing to work on the floor rather than disrupt this piece of art. Then I finally realized that I at least had to unwrap my phone. I tore the plastic up, wadded it into a ball and threw it in my trash can. Only to see it bounce off.

Yup, they got that, too.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Keep Off My Grass

When I was growing up at 1235 Longfellow Avenue in South Bend, Indiana, we had the nice neighbor to the right and the cranky neighbor to the left. The nice neighbor was Clara Haller, a former secretary at Studebaker who lived alone with her dog, Michael, had an amazing collection of antique lighters, chained smoked cigarettes and taught me how to read, spell and play gin rummy. The mean neighbor was Estel Brockus, a man who seemed to do nothing but yell at his wife, yell at his dog and yell at the neighborhood kids to keep off his grass.

I'm turning into Estel.

It's not that I give a rip about the grass. Despite my intense training mowing Estel's lawn in his later years (a time when I actually heard the words, "You missed a blade"), I've never developed that romantic attachment to tiny vertical shafts of greenocity so endemic to others in my species.

I'm more a crank about the pathological self-absorption of most people under 30 years of age. "Making fun of self-absorption when you're writing in your stupid blog?" you might say. Fair play to you. But seriously, there is something to this "Real World" generation thing. I accept informational interviews with people who presumably want jobs but don't ask any questions. It's as if they're waiting for me to ask about them. "So how are you feeling today? Still a little depressed from that thing that happened on the way home yesterday? Yeah, it's hard, isn't it?"

Then I realize something: It's a fact of life that each generation thinks the next is lazy, ignorant and self-possessed. And there's good reason for that perception. It's true. I've noticed that my parents (and my friends' parents) spend significant parts of their retirements actually serving the community. They join associations. They volunteer. I imagine my retirement as a time for traveling to every continent, reading every book, seeing every movie and learning every instrument on the planet. I don't see running for the city council. I see building a music studio in my basement.

The next generation? They'll be too in debt to ever retire. But if they ever do, they'll probably spend it all writing their autobiographies.

Note: BBS will be on vacation for the next week... unless I can find a nice Internet coffee shop on Nantucket Island.

Friday, October 5, 2007

God Save the Kinks

Flipping through channels last night, I came across a commercial for the new Wes Anderson flick, "The Darjeerling Limited." This movie will get a lot of press for the wrong reason. Sure, it seems to foreshadow Owen Wilson's suicide attempt; but more important, it features two wonderfully obscure songs by The Kinks: "Strangers" and "This Time Tomorrow."

A quickly written blog post is no way to honor my favorite band. Yet, I must try.

The Kinks are not the greatest band of all time. Truth be told, they're probably not even that close. I don't know if it's even fair to say that they're "underrated." To be mentioned as part of the British invasion in the same breath as The Beatles is an honor they (and no other band, frankly) deserves. But The Kinks are my favorite band, and that's a different measure. They're my favorite band precisely because they're so frustrating, so hard to measure, so hard to figure out, so impossible to label as either geniuses or pretenders.

Move beyond any controversy about whether The Kinks invented distortion or gave birth to hard rock through Dave Davies' unique amp saturation in "You Really Got Me." What has always attracted me to this band is the fact that no songwriter has better expressed two feelings close to my heart than Ray Davies--feelings that I can only describe as "intimate removal" and "lonely contentment." (By the way, no director has expressed these two feelings better than Wes Anderson, and never better than in "Rushmore," so it's no surprise that The Kinks tend to be his preferred soundtrack.)

My attraction to The Kinks started when they appeared on Saturday Night Live in the early 80s and cranked out the two most disparate tunes ever played on that stage: the frenetic, self-referential "Destroyer" followed by the soft and pastoral "Art Lover." One song about the destructive force of paranoia; the other about a guy sitting in a park who loves watching kids and is terrified of being perceived as a pervert.

But my true love of The Kinks started when I popped in my brother's vinyl copy of "Celluloid Heroes" in the 7th Grade. As I eased into the blue beanbag chair and strapped on the 20-pound Pioneer headphones, two songs hit my ears in a way that none ever had: "Holiday" and "Sitting in my Hotel."

"Holiday" is a humid, melancholy jazz tune that transports you to the beach.

Holiday, oh what a lovely day today. I'm oh so glad they sent me away to have a little holiday.

The whole time you listen, you wonder if the singer is simply talking about a vacation; if he's truly mad and has been "sent away" without realizing it; if he's mad but knows it and is enjoying his solitude anyway; or if he's imagining the whole thing. When the song concludes:

Lying on the beach, my back burned rare. Salt gets in my blisters and sand gets in my hair. The sea's an open sewer, but I really couldn't care. I'm breathing through my mouth so I don't have to sniff the air.

I don't really care if the singer is crazy or not. I just like him.

"Sitting in my Hotel" clued me into one of the frustrations with the Kinks: It sounds like the Beatles, just not as good. The engineer even drowned Ray Davies' voice in a reverb designed to conjure John Lennon. The song is sung from the perspective of a person gazing out a hotel window and thinking, "If my friends could see me now" in a way that makes you wonder if he's talking about success, isolation or both. It's a great song, but it ain't The Beatles.

And so it goes as a Kinks fan. You find gems like "This Time Tomorrow" and "She's Got Everything" only after sifting through much of the mediocre. You search for The Kinks' definitive album, and you can't find one that blows your mind from beginning to end. "The Village Green Preservation Society"? It's great, it inspired Pete Townsend to write "Tommy," but it's still uneven. "Arthur"? Cool concept, but not quite. "Sleepwalker"? A sleeper (fittingly), but no.

Stop looking. It doesn't exist. The Beatles will always take you where you want to be. The Kinks are there to remind you who you really are: uneven, imperfect, occasionally touching greatness, or at least getting close enough to smell it, but always falling firmly back down to earth--sitting on a beach or staring through a window. Lonely but content, intimately removed.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Participatory Post

As a rule, I hate quotes. Quotes on calendars. Quotes on posters. Quotes on applications for MFA programs. They're the worst kind of shallow, because they pretend to be deep. (The exception to this, of course, is anything ever uttered by Mark Twain.)

But I'm here today to, in a way, give the quote its due. I've been trying to think of the things that friends, family and co-workers have said to me that have really cut through and left a mark. They might be meaningful. They might be true. Or they might be just plain odd. So far, the list includes:

"Your entire job is to get beat up by smart people." - Pat Rosenstiel (co-worker)

"If you eat one meal a day and don't get rained on at night, you're doing fine." (my sister)

"Every married man knows that at some point, he's going to find a woman he thinks is better for him." (my father, said cryptically after I shared the story of my best friend's parents divorcing because his father fell in love with someone else... strange thing to tell your son... I let it go)

"You can't really dust for vomit." (Nigel Tufnel)

Okay, scratch that last one. I don't want this to turn into "My Favorite Movie Quotes." I'm looking for anything anyone has heard in his or her lifetime (from a real person) that actually provided either a "mentor moment" or an enigmatic scratch of the head. In the meantime, I'm going to keep thinking.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Stop Pretending You Know Me

So I'm on Netflix, because everyone keeps telling how good the Ken Burns "War" documentary is. I'm thinking I'll just get it on DVD when the time comes, but before I do, I really want to finally see that Spike Lee documentary on Hurricane Katrina. In fact, it might be interesting to compare the two.

(It's already interesting to me that one is getting such good buzz, while the other, also highly acclaimed, never really did.)

(It's also interesting that we don't have a definitive number from Hurricane Katrina that sticks in the national consciousness like "9/11." Can anyone tell me how many people died in Hurricane Katrina? Anyway...)

So I find the Spike Lee series, "When the Levees Broke." I add it to my Queue. Then I get one of those, "You might also enjoy" thingies. Hey, "Who Killed the Electric Car"! A work colleague has told me that's a must see. Okay, I'll add it.


Now what? Ten other documentaries I might enjoy? Okay, I'm annoyed.

Maybe I'm in the one percent of people who feel this way, but how dare you. How dare you assume to know my tastes. How dare you take one decision I make and try to shove me into a demographic set. You think I'm that simple, that predicable, that one-dimensional? I'm going to order some vampire flick just to f*** you up, you arrogant piece of code!

You find this kind of marketing everywhere for a good reason. It works. Still, I wonder if in our quest to so perfectly tag people as consumers, they will one day purposely reject those efforts as a way of enforcing (or even creating) their individuality. Frankly, I hope so.

As an experiment while I was still on Netflix, I found the movie, "Hell House" and added it to my Queue. A screen popped up: Would I like to see "Secrets of the Serpent" or "Dawn of the Dead?"

Hah! The system is flawed. "Hell House" is a documentary about a church near Dallas that offers "a multimedia fire-and-brimstone performance designed to give its audiences a glimpse of what awaits those who stray from the path of a strict Christian life." In other words, a haunted house designed to show what hell is like and scare people into joining a church.

Now THAT's marketing.

P.S. It should have asked me if I wanted to see "Jesus Camp" or "Marjoe."

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Delicate Art of Obfuscation

This is what drives you nuts when you: a) really do think climate change is going to affect your life, and certainly the life of your four-year-old son; and b) you're in the "perception" business and know B.S. when you see it.

So the leader of the United States of Carbon got up in front of the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change and said the following:

"We acknowledge there is a problem, and by setting this goal, we commit ourselves to doing something about it."

This is frustrating for two reasons. One, I'm still waiting for an apology from the Climate Change Deniers who spent years ridiculing those crazy liberals and academics who've been harping about this issue for years. Funny how those "crazies" turn out to be right about so many things. The real crazies are the people who say (and this is a direct quote from someone I know): "Only God can change the weather."

The second reason is that it's complete and utter B.S. Why? Because while it sounds like the Bush Administration is suddenly serious about this issue, and CNN is covering it with the headline, "U.S. Prepared to Cut Greenhouse Emissions," the real focus is on cutting "carbon emissions intensity," which is a term made up of one part "bull" and the other part "crap."

Pay special attention to that last word: "intensity." Remember when we didn't find WMD in Iraq and Bush suddenly said Iraq was engaging in "weapons-of-mass-destruction-related activities"? This is the same obfuscation that allows you to include the term you want to stick in the minds of the public ("weapons of mass destruction" or "carbon emissions"), while actually negating its meaning.

"Emissions intensity" does not refer to a net reduction in carbon emissions, which is what we need. It refers to emissions per unit of GDP. Bottom line, you can reduce "emissions intensity" while actually raising net carbon output.

The climate doesn't give a rip about intensity; it responds to net emissions. On this issue, these bullshit-related statements do nothing but raise America's level of ignorance intensity.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Shallow Thoughts

Sports radio personalities all have stutters. ("I-I-I-I just don't think Belichick should have gotten that fine, I-I-I just don't. I-I-I mean, I'm just stating my opinion, and you can disagree with it. It's a free country. But I-I-I think all he did is what a coach should do.")

My four-year-old son gets the concept of metaphor better than most people I know. The other day, he told me that Earth is a ship, and the universe is the ocean, and the other planets are islands. Run.

One of my business axioms (okay, my only business axiom) has once again been proven: A business that starts offering a clearly brand-non-sequitur product is always on its last legs. Mac Groveland is the perfect petri dish. The bagel shop that suddenly started advertising "We now have smoothies!" closed in four months. Now Home Video, which a couple of years ago converted a huge chunk of its space to an in-store Dunn Brothers and started advertising "Home of the $2 Latte!!" on Sharpied neon green poster boards is closing ("Damn you, Netflix!"). Mysteriously still alive: Grand Photo, which started selling umbrellas a year and a half ago.

Speaking of brand non-compliance, Macalester College continues constructing its mammoth new athletic facility/natatorium and sodding a new baseball field. How long before the Mighty Scots football team can defeat the Flailin' Irish?

Did anyone see Jeanine Garofalo on Bill Maher last Friday? I usually resist the temptation to discount what someone says based on their "crazy appearance"--especially when the right uses that tactic to talk about those crazy liberals ("Hey, John Kerry looks French!"). But something's up with Jeanine.

The best show on TV that no one's watching is "Mad Men." It's got the cinematography of the best Hitchcock with oddly effective Mametian dialogue. It also has the coolest opening credit sequence in TV history. And lest you think it's high brow, all the characters do is smoke, drink and copulate. And kudos to the creators for creating a triple meaning with two words. (Ad Men, Mad (Crazy) Men, Madison Avenue Men... yeah, it took me a while to get it, too.)

Libertarianism is trendy and annoying. Basically, it's based on the belief that the actions of one individual have no affect on another individual. It's an ideological vacuum. Sure, this is true when it comes to some things (consensual sex comes to mind), but it's a total fallacy when it comes to others (burning tons of fossil fuel, polluting the water supply, and yes, smoking in public). The truth is that the world has so many people consuming so many resources with such sophisticated technology that our actions are more interrelated than ever before. Which is why this is exactly the wrong time for Libertarianism to be fashionable.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sorry, Charlie

Fourteen years ago, I endured embarrassment and ridicule from my siblings when my girlfriend at the time insisted on shopping for a dresser during the second half of The Game of the Century: Notre Dame vs. Florida State. I deserved it.

Last Saturday during the Notre Dame-Michigan State game, I went apple picking. Voluntarily. After that, I caught about 10 minutes of the game before taking the family up to my grandmother's house for dinner. Instead of tuning in for the fourth quarter when we reached Roseville, I enjoyed the sight of four live deer grazing in Grandma Lou's back yard. As I watched the youngest doe bound back into the woods, I thought, "Wow, we sure could use her offensive firepower."

Like many of the Notre Dame faithful, I'm left scratching my head at the profound disintegration of this program. When Jerry Faust came in from the high school ranks, it was clear that he was in over his head. When Bob Davie took over for Lou Holtz, the mediocrity was apparent from the first offensive series against Georgia Tech (I was at the game). When Ty Willingham stepped in for Davie, we got the over-achieving bounce from season one, then fell back to feebleness the next two years.

Those three coaches were basically unproven commodities who didn't succeed at ND. Weis is different. Here was a guy who had achieved success wherever he had been--too much so for it dismissed as mere coincidence or the product of living off other great coaches vicariously. ND overachieved in its first season, culminating with the near upset of the mighty Trojans. It played only above average against a soft schedule in 2006, but it did not experience a dramatic fall. Now Notre Dame, the team I grew up with--the team I imagined playing for as I carried a Nerf football up the steps to bed every night in South Bend, Indiana--is the worst team in college football.

I have little to add to what's already being shouted in ND nation. But I do want to say this: The media has planted the seed that this drop off to oblivion is due largely to a "recruiting gap" between Willingham and Weis. I don't buy it. Sure, such a gap exists, and Weis has (theoretically) greatly improved recruiting from the Willingham/Davie eras. But where's the young talent? Where's the spark? Good-to-great coaches don't experience dramatic meltdowns. They don't suffer six straight blowout losses. They don't get bad performances from talented players. They get great performances from average players.

Unless this team improves steadily throughout this season and dominates next year, I have no choice but to believe that Charlie has simply lost this team. No, I don't think he should be fired yet. Like most Irish-in-denial, I'll give him this one horrible year out of hope (not belief) that the recruiting gap is legit. But then, using the typical Weis offense as an apt closing metaphor, it's four and out.

Friday, September 21, 2007

I Guess This Is What Contests Do

It's nice to wake up to an AOL in box that looks like this. These are all folks who have requested to read "Deadbeat Boyfriends" just over the last 12 hours. For anyone with that unmarketed screenplay sitting under their Flyover Land bed, I highly recommend the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards--if anything, just to get messages from people who have "film" or "pictures" in their email addresses.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby

As if the world needed any more proof that conservative politicians and pundits are institutionally neurotic on the subject of sex, enter Katherine Kersten (again). In her column today, "Forget Football, U's SHADEy Condom Brings Home the Big Prize," Kersten actually makes the argument that we should care more about football than about unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

What's her beef? The University of Minnesota was named by Trojan as the number one university for sexual health. The entire column is written with a cheeky sarcasm, ending with this amazing line:

"...[W]e can quit losing sleep over football polls and U.S. News and World Report academic rankings. Who needs them when you’re No. 1 for something with the word sex in it?"

Ladies and gentlemen, this says everything you need to know about the profound irrationality of today's "social conservatives." Anything with the word "sex" in it is bad. Even "sexual health." Think about that for a minute.

This is the group that to this day cares more about fellatio in the Oval Office than dead babies in Baghdad and Darfur. This is the group that drones on about homosexuality while never saying a word about rape and spousal abuse. This is the group that insists on a Designer but rejects the design. This is the group that covers the breasts on a statue. This is the group that thinks sexual preference, rather than consent, is the moral dividing line on marriage. This is the group that passionately wants to eliminate abortion, yet opposes every tactic that actually reduces it.

This is the group that thinks anything is bad if it "has the word sex in it." It's time to grow up, people. Put a condom on it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Deer Hunting with Jesus

Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus is one of those enjoyable reads about relevant issues that seems to call you to action--but ultimately leaves you at the bar wanting to order another beer instead.

The premise is great: Instead of an Ivy League liberal writing about why Southern and Middle American working-class people vote Republican (as if they were prehistoric mammals to be studied), Bageant, a self-proclaimed redneck who became a liberal, goes back to his working-class town in Winchester, Virginia, to actually talk to the people he knows and try to answer the question himself.

Bageant is definitely what you would call a colorful writer, and that's the real appeal of the book. A guy who embraces the term "redneck"--both for himself and other people--has the instant anti-PC appeal that a lot of liberals secretly crave. He scores big points in some areas. He offers some insight into what it means to have Scots-Irish roots. He offers a little bitch slap to the Left on why the Second Amendment is no less relevant than the First. He meaningfully communicates that for a culture where value is determined by work, and the biggest insult is to say that someone "doesn't want to work," it's unlikely that someone will complain when they have to work three jobs to have the same life their parents had with one.

But in the end, Bageant kind of thinks everyone is stupid and ignorant--the people in his town and the liberal politicians who fail to communicate with them. Rednecks are ignorant because they don't get multiple sources of information, they follow a Rapture-based religious scam, they don't see how globalization takes their American Dreams away, they've drunk the Kool-Aid that unionization is a form of weakness, they don't see education as a way to improve their lives, they don't see (or refuse to acknowledge) the environmental degredation around them, and they fail utterly to see how profit-driven healthcare and shady real estate financiers are consciously marching them toward death and debt.

And liberals look at this and say, "lost cause."

So basically, the point of the book is that conservatives embraced opportunity where liberals gave up. Knowing that the machinations of the world would continue to make life miserable for the people of Winchester, conservatives pounced on the opportunity to shield them from that reality while using them as a means for generating votes, rising to power and staying there.

Okay, but this still leaves me intellectually unsatisfied. It's too easy to argue that conservatives have won because they're the only ones talking. If the message itself doesn't resonate, that tactic doesn't work. The message obviously resonates. So for me, it's still a marketing question of why. You might be raping someone with a bogus mortgage deal on a manufactured home that's never going to appreciate--and will fall apart in the first rain storm--but by making that person feel like an "owner" for a few months, you're appealing to something primal. And (much to my chagrin) liberals continue to fail in their effort to tap that vein.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Holy Crap! (Part II)

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Small Intestine of Rock 'n' Roll

Note: This post is about misheard lyrics, not bad lyrics. I, um, intended it to be that way all along...

After a hard work week and a plethora of serious posts, I thought it was time for something more participatory that also allows me to just get negative. The idea hit after I was somewhere this week and heard "The Heart of Rock 'n' Roll" being pumped through the sound system. I've hated this song from the hour it came out, but until that day, I never realized how mystifyingly awful this particular lyric is:

"Now the oboe may be barely breathin'."

Think about that. You're writing a song in a bald attempt to get radio play--a song that isn't really a rock song but is dedicated to rock songs, that mentions lots of different cities to elicit applause from those locales during the inevitable tour to support the album--and to really hammer home your point, you write, "Now the oboe may be barely breathin'."

Did the writer first pen "French horn" and then cross it out? Did he try "bassoon" and then slap his forehead and say, "I need a two-syllable classical instrument with the emphasis on the FIRST syllable!" Granted, and oboe is a very pinched-sounding instrument. It's also a very difficult instrument to play, with its two (count 'em, two) reeds, and one could say that the quality of its sound is strained. And if one were to anthropomorphize an oboe, one might say it sounds as though it is having trouble breathing. I get that. But it still sucks.

Now, I turn it over to you. Not whole songs, but just individual lyrics, that top your Awful list. I have to throw in one more, and then I'll shut up. My top two are:

1. "Now the oboe may be barely breathin'" (Huey Lewis & The News)
2. "It's time to bring this ship into the SHORE, and throw away the OARS, FORever." (REO Speedwagon--note: ships don't have oars)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Connecting the Dots

After reading The End of Oil, The World Without Us, House of Bush/House of Saud and Sleeping with the Devil (the book that inspired the movie, Syriana), it's embarrassingly clear why we're in our current mess.

- All nations learn that the key to prosperity is economic growth, and the key to economic growth is access to cheap energy. That energy used to come from wood, now it comes from oil and gas.

- The U.S. learned this right quick. But then it learned that its own hydrocarbon fuel supplies would never be able to meet its own demand, so it had to look elsewhere.

- Starting in the '40s, we learned that Saudi Arabia, with its enormous petroleum reserves, would be the key to our prosperity for the foreseeable future, so we struck a deal with them: oil for security. Not only does Saudi Arabia have the largest proven reserves... it also has more than half of the world's spare capacity. Read: It can minimize the economic impact of oil prices by "turning on the pipes."

- Unfortunately, to keep this deal going, we've had to do business with a government that directly and indirectly funds terrorism to appease its enemies and stay in power. Who has given al qaeda half a billion dollars in direct funding? Hint: not Iraq.

- On a side note, who helped foment the Muslim Brotherhood (of which al qaeda is just a small branch office) by siding with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the name of containing Soviet Communism? Hint: not Canada.

- Also unfortunately, oil is on its decline and will run out this century.

- Also unfortunately, this resource has pushed atmospheric carbon levels to heights not seen since the Pleistocene Era, which is making the planet less and less livable for the 6.5 billion people who exist on it.

- Result: Death by terrorism, death by climate change. Every administration starting with Franklin Roosevelt has been guilty of myopia. At some point, someone had to realize that the formula was a Ponzi scheme, and that we needed to switch our energy infrastructure from oil and gas to something that wouldn't raise temperatures in both the atmosphere and the mosque.

- Nobody did.

Friday, September 7, 2007

What Kind of a Man Am I?

So the other day I'm doing the usual routine. I get home from work around 6:00 and start cooking dinner. This wasn't one of the easy nights, like Taco Tuesday or Pizza & Movie Friday. This was one of the adult meal nights: Greek oregano chicken salad with yogurt tahini dressing.

James (a.k.a. Seamus) is spastic, talking up a cyclone, running from room to room, automatically contradicting every word out of Anne's mouth. I'm trying to mix the dressing while not forgetting to turn the chicken while trying to remember to "clean as I go" while watching the clock, knowing that we need to leave enough time for a bath, when the kid runs into the kitchen and plows into my leg for fun. "GET OUT OF MY KITCHEN!" I hear myself scream as I rip open the baby spinach.

Kill me.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The World Without Us

Thank you, Alan Weisman.

The World Without Us is the most compelling and creative expression of human peril I've ever come across. I've never been a card-carrying environmentalist, and now I know why the movement has never compelled me in the past: It hasn't been intellectually honest.

This book is intellectually honest. You may ask, "What's the point in writing a book about what would happen to the planet if homo sapiens vanished tomorrow?" There are several:

- It reminds us that the planet was not created for us. We evolved into it, and we are nothing but a blip in its history.

- It details how everything man-made--from our own homes to the Manhattan subway system--are shockingly impermanent and waiting to be reclaimed by water, mold, microbes, plants, UV rays and other animals.

- It points out the most if not all of what we refer to as "nature" would be better off without us.

- It reveals the short-sightedness of the environmentalist movement in focusing on how we are destroying "Mother Earth." The Earth is neither an ally nor an antagonist to humans. The truth is far more disturbing: It is absolutely indifferent to us.

- It shows in vivid detail how our particular mammal has been involved in a form of involuntary--I'll create a word here--speciesuicide. By choosing polymers, energy sources, agricultural practices and hunting methods that ultimately kill our food supply, pollute our water supply and increase fatal natural disasters, we are not destroying the Earth; we are destroying ourselves.

- If you're a conservative, it shows that "letting the market decide" isn't morally bulletproof; it only works under a short-term perspective with the assumption of unlimited resources.

- If you're a liberal, it shows that while "self interest" might have caused this problem, it is also integral to its solution.

- It points out (parenthetically) that weeds are actually a form of biodiversity, which for some reason is one of the most compelling facts in the book.

- It leaves you with this image: As much as we have already done ourselves in by over-consumption, every four days, one million more of us need food, water and energy.

I'll say it again: The biggest problem we face is the relationship between population, energy and the environment. Our only hope is that our worst trait, greed, is ultimately trumped by our best trait, intelligence.

That will only happen if we attain a sense of unity and humility as a species. And that's what this book offers--in abundance.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Masculinity Marketing

Once again, the Republicans are proving the marketing adage, "It's the Masculinity, Stupid."

After branding Democratic calls for troop reductions and withdrawals as weak ("cut and run," "aiding and abetting the enemy," etc.), Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman today came out and said the same thing but with a different spin.

Is Coleman a cut-and-run homo sissy homo bleeding-heart homo? No. He's backing a withdrawal of 5,000 troops by the end of the year "to send a message to the Iraqi government."

See what he did there? He made it about accountability--specifically, someone else's accountability. Coleman's whole spin is that the troops have achieved a great deal, but he's "not impressed with the Iraqi government." Withdrawing troops is therefore a way of saying, "Hey, we're taking your candy away. We're not going to continue to do our part if you don't have the balls to do yours."

And that makes it unwimpy.

Democrats make the mistake of confusing "accountability" for OUR accountability, which means they hate America, love terrorism, believe soldiers are dying in vain and are generally a bunch of whiny quitters.

Remember, Dems, you must, without fail, trumpet the ideals of personal responsibility and accountability. If someone tries to hold you accountable, question their masculinity (via their patriotism) and make the case that you're doing your part, it's the other guys who aren't stepping to the plate.

This is the tactic that separates a flip-flopper from a savvy centrist. And the reason that Norm Coleman will win reelection to the Senate without breaking a sweat.