Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What if this meal were your last?

I can only assume I'm not the only person who's mind wanders this time of year to thoughts of death. Remembering those we've lost, contemplating our own mortality amid the sixteen-hour nights and dormant frozen life that surrounds us (okay, maybe it's more of a Northern, Midwestern thing than I first thought). Death, I imagine, is cold, and so is December.
I have a weighty collection of books of trivia in the den, and in one of them I found a list of some last meals of recently executed murderers in America. An aside: the book is "What?" by Erin McHugh, who has a five-tome series of the five W's, and they are a wealth of unimportant knowledge for the trivia lover on your gift list.
But back to the last meals. What is the fascination with them? A last meal is food that you know you will never fully utilize, or even digest. It is ingested solely for the gastronomic pleasure of eating it. When you're trying to decide with a few friends if you want Thai or TexMex for dinner, there is always the assumption that the runner-up can be the crown winner next time. Imagine trying to make the case for one of the two if you knew with absolute certainty that you would never swallow food again in this world. Do you try to fuse the best aspects of the whole spectrum? Do you choose one and have the absolute best of that thin range? Go simple with basic culinary staples? Wolf down some comfort food, whatever that may be for you? On McHugh's list there were two in particular that caught my eye. Executed two weeks apart, they could not be more different.
In May of 2002, Stanley Baker Jr. was put to death after being served the following menu: Two 16 oz. ribeyes, one lb. turkey breast (sliced thin), twelve strips of bacon, two large hamburgers with mayo, onion, and lettuce, two large baked potatoes with butter, sour cream, cheese, and chives, four slices of cheese or one-half pound of grated cheddar cheese, chef salad with blue cheese dressing, two ears of corn on the cob, one pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and four vanilla Cokes or Mr. Pibb. That is an autopsy I wouldn't want to sit in on. Thirteen days later, Walter Mickens was executed after having chosen to be served baked chicken, rice and carrots. It was what happened to be served in the prison cafeteria that night, and he ate only the chicken.
I was intrigued by the dichotomy of these two meals, and did a little more research. I found out that the internet really does contain at least one of everything when I found the Dead Man Eating weblog. The cases involving the two executions in question are covered here, in the third post down titled "Last Mealopolooza."
What strikes me the most about these two cases is that they both seem so cut-and-dried, but if you look at the last words you see two completely different men. Mr. Baker didn't have a final statement, and he even got his victim's name wrong. He was "doing what was expected of him," and never seemed to have believed he did anything evil. Mr. Mickens, on the other hand, showed nothing but remorse in his final statements, begged for forgiveness, and referred to his having been born again into the Christian faith. The man who ate a shopping cart's worth of everything before being put to death wasn't even clear on the details of the crime he was being killed for. The man who ate whatever the rest of the inmates ate was saved already by a higher power.
I guess if I were assured a seat at the right hand of the Father, I'd be a little more nonchalant about my last meal too. It appears Mr. Baker was less confident in his eternal lodging arrangements than Mr. Mickens.
Full Disclosure: If I got to choose, my last culinary adventure on this Earth would be a steak I grilled myself to a perfect medium-rare with hand-cut shoestring french fries dipped in garlic-pepper aioli, and Brussels Sprouts sautéed in a balsamic reduction. It would be served with a bottle of 1996 vintage Veuve Clicquot.

Friday, December 4, 2009

...and so this is Christmas...

So we got our tree up. Merry Christmas. While we were decorating, we had KQQL 107.9 in the twin cities blaring carols on the radio. It brought some ideas forth.
I have always loved Christmas music. Though I tend to skew toward the secular carols, I once performed O Holy Night for the assembled congregation of the Lutheran church in which I grew up, so I can hold my own with the Christchild, too. When I was small my parents had what had to be the oldest stereo system in the western hemisphere hooked up in the living room above the fireplace. The amazing thing was that it had better sound than any Bose radio on the shelves today - it just didn't have any components: just a tuner and a turntable. As such, my knowledge of Yuletide cheer was informed solely by Kenny Rogers' Christmas albums and a Time/Life collection of holiday classics on vinyl (I think the cover had some kind of Currier & Ives-ish, sleigh ride print on it). But man, when Perry Como tells you there's no place like home for the holidays, and you've got a fire going in the fireplace and you've never known a holiday away from your own family, damnit you believe him.
So now I'm older. I've noticed a happy trend in new recordings of old classics, and it distresses me. I do not have the gravitation toward fun carols that I once had. "Up on the Housetop" and "Here Comes Santa Claus" no longer hold the magic they once did. These days what I really want to hear is "Happy Christmas." The wholesome "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" has given way to the realistic "I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older," and I do need a little Christmas now.
Here's an example I've been thinking about lately: In 1943 Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote a song for the Judy Garland vehicle, Meet Me in St. Louis, and they gave it decidedly dark lyrics. More than just dark, though, they were topical to the plot - "next year we may all be living in New York." There was no way it would ever do anything but exposit storyline for this single movie and depress the viewers of the film. Luckily, they changed it slightly to be less ominous, and in the process made Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas a universal sentiment of the holiday season for anyone who's ever had an extended family.
The song took an unfortunate turn in 1957 when Frank Sinatra was cutting an album called A Jolly Christmas. Why he felt the need to include this beautifully melancholy song in any kind of Jolly compilation is beyond me, but he approached Martin with a request to "happy up" the song. That is when it received the loathsome anti-climactic lyric it is best known for today: "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." This is a Hollywood ending for what was never meant (despite it's cinematic beginnings) to be a happy-ending song. The first rewrite, and the one I know from my Time/Life childhood Yule dreams is this: "Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." As someone who has family in three different states, and who sees the people with whom I was raised and with whom I came of age maybe once a year, this lyric speaks to me on a very deep level. In this version, there is no guaranteed reuniting "in a year" or "on Christmas Day" - we just know we're all getting by and god-willing we'll all get together soon to sit with one another and pretend it hasn't been that hard after all. It is what the Holiday season is about - hope for tomorrow's reunions, and resolve to keep a fire going in that ancient hearth beneath the old stereo, just in case someone graces my threshold bearing Yuletide cheer. I don't know if I'll be in a position to host guests in a year, but for the love of god, if you people show up at my door we will be together, and that is what matters. Until then, I'm happy to muddle through as best as I can. So Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Now.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Maybe this means I'm all growed up...

I distinctly remember the early summer days in my youth when my parents (or my friend's parents, or my school, or whomever) would take me and a couple dozen of my closest friends down to Valleyfair in Shakopee, MN. I'd have trouble sleeping the night before in anticipation of the fun to be had. When we got there, and had traversed the asphalt desert of parking lot to the gates, it was like a cornucopia of options for how to spend the day. The pirate ship, the olde-timey photos, the water park, the arcade... the possibilities went on and on. By the end of the day, after the dusk laser show, I was never quite ready to leave. I was sure just one more ride on the Enterprise, the Corkscrew, or the Scrambler was all I needed. I'd spend the evening lying in bed, unable to fall asleep as I (my inner ear, perhaps?) could still recall the sensory memories of being flung in all different directions and eating the cotton candy and funnel cake.
I had a similar experience this morning. I had to get to the Farmers' Market before they closed at 1 P.M. I got there and parked, and the Christmas tree vendors were already setting up for this weekend. There was still, however, a single lane of produce stands lined up for the taking. I worked my way down the line - Sweet potatoes, check. Parsnips, check. The Savoy cabbage vendor also sold the cauliflower I needed, score! I got the spaghetti squash I needed and still had enough money left over for a treat: homemade soap from the lady who gives out free samples with every purchase. I was there for all of fifteen minutes, and only got half way down the aisle. As I was leaving, I felt a little guilty to be making such haste back home. I was sure there were some persimmons that I hadn't found yet - or some turnips. Maybe if I wandered further I'd find the honey guy or the meat vendor, but I had exhausted my twenty dollars, and had almost forty pounds of produce to show for it. I won't say I lay awake in anticipation, or in reminiscence, but all the same my feelings during the event were largely similar to how I felt all those years ago at the amusement park.
The farmers' market is a pleasure that is all too rare in my life - considering the fact that it's only available half the year in my town, I'd like to go at least once a week from May through November. All told, however, I only get down there with about half that frequency. So on this, what is likely to be my last visit before the snow melts in spring, I felt cheated that I couldn't linger longer, savoring the warm autumn afternoon and the fresh produce. Goodnight, farmers' market, and I look forward to seeing you again when the coming snow finally melts.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Coming back into neighborliness.

Finally having next-door neighbors after two plus years of vacancy on my south flank should be good news, right? Then why do I strangely feel like my privacy is being invaded? I've gotten so used to no one ever being on the neighbor's deck when I go out back - now that there is occasionally someone else out there who says, "Hey, smokin' buddy!" when I go out for an evening stogie, or always someone in the living room over there watching TV (and they refuse to put curtains up), I'm a little taken aback.
I hoped for two freaking years that someone would move in over there. That the guy who flipped the foreclosed house would sell to a nice young couple. That's exactly what happened, and now I'm constantly catching myself thinking, "don't you people have to work or something? Go away!" It's not that I don't like them, by any means - in fact, from what I can tell they are the ideal neighbors. I should be ecstatic that they actually bought into my neighborhood. And yet, I feel like Grizzly Adams over here - I've been accustomed to the solitary life without neighbors around, and now society is moving back into the neighborhood after being driven out for years by foreclosures.
Maybe it's because they have their T.V. right in front of the back window, so whenever I'm outside and they're home it looks like they're staring out the window at me. Maybe it's because they remind me of people I used to work with. Maybe it's just because our decks are both above our privacy fences, so there's really no way I'm going to not see them when I'm outside. I think it's just going to take some getting used to. At least the house on the north side is still vacant for the time being, or I might start to get agoraphobic.
If my new neighbors happen across this blog, welcome! And I do mean it. I'm super glad to have you next door, and I'll bring some home-canned jam or salsa over soon to welcome you to the neighborhood. If you need to borrow anything for your yard, you're welcome to it. I don't mean you any offense with this post - I'm just a little weirded out interacting with people again. I'm sure it'll come back to me, just like riding a bike.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Time flies when you're not really changing at all.

Just a heads up: this post might embody the "meandering" part of the subhead of my blog (which to my Facebook friends is available here - it's always bugged me that Facebook links to the note within its own confines, but not to the actual blog), than the "rants" portion.
I've spent the last couple days going through the magazine museum in my living room. As mentioned in my previous post, Lisa has a bunch of 1970s Better Homes and Gardens that she just got, and she also has a few issues from much longer ago in her stockpile. In addition she has received through some consumer website or another a free subscription to BHG this past spring. So I got to thinking, and just sat all afternoon going through the October 1949 issue, then flashing forward 25 years to October 1974, then another 35 year jump to the October 2009 one that just came this week. I have to say it's been fascinating.
First of all, let's review the context in which each of these issues came out:
1949 - We had just recently emerged from a victorious and clear-cut, good v. evil struggle in Europe and the Pacific that had lifted us out of the depression, and with Truman in the white house we were rushing headlong into the post-war prosperity the 1950s would become so known for. NATO had been formed and formalized in the spring of that year, and the seeds of the cold war had been sown, swinging the pendulum from the social state of the new deal to the red scare that would soon follow.
1974 - We were in the process of dialing down a long divisive war fought for dubious reasons in Southeast Asia. Nixon had just resigned for something decidedly unbecoming of his office, and the future of civility and order in our nation itself seemed to be at stake. No one seemed to want to deal with life here in the U.S. Pendulum: somewhere between authoritarian eavesdropping state and libertarian uprising against a tyrannical federal power.
2009 - We are currently fighting a war which I will not politicize here (if you've read any of my previous posts you can probably guess where I come down on it anyway). In addition, the pendulum is in virtual fibrillation, we're in the middle of an economic hemorrhage unlike anything anyone under seventy years old can remember, and we're being told the way to pull out of it is spending. On anything whatsoever.
With that in mind, the most striking difference is the ads in these magazines. In 1949 the majority of the ads were for home improvement items - washers (and a lovely article on how to save time using an automatic washer), vacuums, water heaters, etc. The magazine itself was more geared toward both making a home, but also building and maintaining it. The ads and articles contained just as many men as women. In 1974, the ads were mainly for life improvement items - travel packages to Hawaii and the like (this was two years after the Brady Bunch discovered their cursed Tiki there, so I'm sure the Pacific Islands were all the rage, vacation-wise), but also liberally peppered with pet foods and detergents. This year, what the overwhelming majority of advertisements in BHG are about is self improvement items - they're selling cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, clothing, pharmaceuticals, and sleep aids & mattresses (and the overwhelming majority of people in these ads are female). With all the time savers of 1949, all the vacation packages of 1974, and all the drugs and makeup of 2009, would anyone care to venture a guess as to which generation is sleeping better at night?
Also worth noting is the gender targeting of the different incarnations of the magazine. In both 1949 and 1974 the issues were geared toward both women and men, whereas in 2009 the demographers have clearly decided for us that it is the woman in the family who is in charge of the daily comings, goings, and upkeep of the house - even though now it's more common than in the previous years that she works outside the home as well. Indeed, the article in the 1949 issue titled "How-To for the Handy Man" or the ones detailing how to get better mileage out of a car or create 3 styles of bookshelves "designed for men" would look out of place next to the CoverGirl spreads and Curel ads in today's edition. But perhaps that is more a function of magazines having to cater to more highly specified audiences and fewer of them being aimed at the entire household unit.
To be sure, the older issues definitely had a gender skew as far as roles within the household were concerned, but I almost think it is less offensive than today's demographic skewing. Yes, in 1949, and even 1974, it editorially assumed the father was concerned with the structural and mechanical workings of the household, while the mother (yes, always one father and one mother) was more concerned with the nurturing and aesthetic aspects, but at least it was honest about that. In 2009 however, it does not even pretend to care what a man does in the home, and as such it has all but abandoned the building and maintenance in favor of design and furnishing (showing, perhaps, that it cares a great deal what a woman does in the home).
In the aforementioned "How-To" article in 1949 they had three pages of illustrations with little captions telling one how to coat one's own nails, prevent rust on tools, evenly sand a curved surface, etc. In 2009 they had an article with really intriguing photos about how a couple remodeled their old outdated basement into a finished family room area. It did not, however, say how they did it. It was half a page of text talking about aesthetics, the apex of which was mentioning that darker colors help the giant plasma T.V. blend with the room. The feeling I got from it was along the lines of "you're female and home all day, so here's what you should buy," even though it never has to come out and say it (though I must admit I am charmed that in every one of these issues they have recipes for Halloween cookies, and that they all still have a recipe contest as well, even if today's prizes are considerably larger).
Overall though, the greater editorial arc of Better Homes and Gardens has been one away from actually making a home and toward filling one. "Here are the techniques you can use to be domestically competent" has skewed to "Here are the things you should buy to make your home comfortable." Perhaps that's a product of us collectively trading in "Building Things" for "Expensive Numbers on Paper Being Pushed Back and Forth," or perhaps it is just laziness on our part ("if someone else will put a window in for me, I'll have time to pick out expensive drapes."), but it makes me want to finally finish my basement with some nice built-in "Man's" bookshelves - just as a tribute to those ridiculous but competent people who made homes before me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Flags of our Fathers

Lisa, in cleaning out her great grandmother's house, has come across something fun - Better Homes and Gardens from the early 1970s. I know, I'm a history nerd, and this alone would be enough for me. But on the last page of each of them there's a feature called "The Man Next Door." It appears to just be pithy little one-liners and observations of this Burton Hillis fellow. It actually reminds me a lot of a Twitter feed in some ways. But in one issue I noticed he had a slightly longer entry, and I feel I need to reprint it in its entirety and discuss. He writes in the May 1971 issue:

"When I received my bank statement in the mail last week, I noticed that an American flag decal was included in the envelope. An attached note explained it was a gift, given in the hope I'd put it on my car window. At first I was pleased.
"Later, I began wondering if it was really the great idea it seemed to be at first. Showing off the colors on special occasions is something our family has always enjoyed. Yet having the Stars and Stripes constantly displayed on my car seemed somehow out of step with our family's attitude toward the flag.
"And what about the people who didn't have a flag decal? Might I risk implying, however unintentionally, that they were somehow less patriotic than I? I decided against the decal, feeling it was more a sign of current political ferment than an expression of genuine patriotism.
"Then too, it seemed Old Glory deserved something better than being dumped in the same class with billboards and bumper stickers, many of them bearing vaguely ominous messages like 'America, love it or leave it.' Used like this - or as a shirt on a bearded youth - the flag becomes a political football rather than a symbol.
"My family agreed. To us, pride in our country can't be synthesized into a decal. Patriotism, like all ideals, must be something we feel within ourselves."

I wonder what all the people with red, white, and blue ribbons on their trunks would think of this. It appears Mr. Hillis' "Billboard and Bumpersticker" people have won this debate, but I like his reasoning. I've always thought the flag doesn't belong along side "My other car is a _____" or even "God is my copilot." In fact, I have a feeling that a good portion of people who wear Old Glory on a T-Shirt or sport a dirty, salty, and torn flag on a bumper sticker are the same people who support anti flag desecration amendments whenever they come up, but I'm not convinced that many of them are familiar with U.S. Code Title 4, Chapter 1 (U.S. Flag Code), which Cornell Law School has presented very simply and well here. Sections 3 and 7 are especially relevant to the display of the flag. Also, Title 36, Chapter 10 deals with civilian use of the flag as well. Section 176, Respect For The Flag, has some interesting things to say about the Stars and Stripes on clothing, as clothing, as drapery, as napkins, etc. Did you know that politicians wearing lapel pins are arguably breaking the U.S. Flag code?
Much of the ramblings of Mr. Burton Hillis are dated humor and somewhat sexist anecdotes, but I can't help wishing that the country had heeded his advice on flag display. The flags of our fathers would appear to have been flags of discretion, and I can only imagine the pride that would fill my chest if I saw the flag in his patriotic light instead of with the political implications I see it now. Just something to think about, I guess.
More on the old Better Homes and Gardens in the next post - so if you're not a history nerd like me feel free to tune me out for a bit.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

All's Fair at the Fair...

Alright, I spent the day at the Minnesota State Fair Saturday. I love that once a year I have to physically prepare myself for a fair. More on that in my Yelp.com review of it here. We hit the Creative Activities building to check out Lisa's award-winning strawberry jelly, we saw the state's biggest boar (testicles the size of my head, no lie), we took a tour of some of the campers that make me celebrate humankind's ability to cram the necessities of life into no more than one hundred square feet, and we also celebrated Michelle Bachmann's craziness immortalized in three, count 'em, three separate seed-art pieces (see below for one of them).

There were the butter heads of Princess Kay of the Milky Way, there were the curds (of course), and there was heritage square. Heritage square is this little area between the Midway and the Grandstand that is a celebration of State Fair history, and Carnival culture in Minnesota. I love the fair because every year I get more disillusioned with public life, but every year there is a place where I can go and be one hundred percent public for a day and no one judges me for it. It is a real, geographical place that we all (200,000 of us) converge on to be swept through the streets by the crowd and be offered so many options of how to spend our precious fair hours, show off our wares, or interact with our elected officials. Or one could watch a parade of costumed llamas, or win a giant stuffed banana, or get scared out of one's wits at the haunted house.

We got to see the Rockabilly show from Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-fonics at one of the free stages (see right), and then we got to wander the midway after dark and take in the lights, the sweat, the carny raconteurs, the fried dough smell, and the awkward teenagers trying to impress one another.

Here's why fairs like this are still relevant in the twenty-first century: They are the last remaining vestige of original festival Americana. They are the only place one can still see the Family Farm in all its glory. They are one of the rare spots where all the pretense is thrown out the window and buyers aren't afraid to haggle and hawkers aren't modest. They are one of the only places left where everybody in the community comes together with all our diverse interests and ideas and we just exist together, and if we don't like someone we meet, to hell with it, we'll spend some time chatting anyway - we're at the Fair after all. It's the only place I've ever bummed a smoke from a guy and spent the next twenty minutes talking (as a city boy) to him about crop yield. It's the only place I've ever had a political debate with someone I don't agree with not devolve into either a shouting match or quiet resentment (because at least we could agree on the cheese curds, maybe).

I know the festival of the harvest goes all the way back to pagan times, but there's just something so quintessentially American about it in my mind - maybe instilled by the Pilgrim Thanksgiving stories from my elementary school days, but I think it's more than that. As I said in my review on Yelp (not to plug that again), it is a bacchanal of proportions that match our wide horizons. As Midwesterners, we in Minnesota are part of one of the largest and most productive agricultural regions on the planet, and as such whether one lives in the city or the country or a small town one has a basic connection to the land and its offerings that makes us respect the end of summer and the onset of autumn. That is why State Fairs are still relevant in our culture, and I am thankful to my state for putting on the best damn one there is (see below).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Requiem for a Lion

Well, it finally happened. Teddy is gone. God bless him, and God speed. He will be missed. I cannot think of anyone in Congress who had more friends on the other side of the aisle. I was actually trying to conjure someone with similar bipartisan respect, and as much as I love calling Al Franken my U.S. Senator, the only other person I can come up with is Paul Wellstone. God only knows where we'd be if that blessed man were still alive and in the senate. We were robbed of the next generation's Liberal Lion by that plane crash. But as for the original Lion, Edward, let's state the obvious: He was the only Kennedy brother who lived long enough to see his hair turn white, and arguably the one who made the most difference in American life, just given the length of his political tenure. He was a Kennedy, to be sure, and as such he was dogged by allegations of all kinds, from unseemly partying to the Chappaquiddick incident. But at heart, he was a liberal senator capable of building the kind of consensus with conservatives we can't even imagine in today's politically charged arena.
So now we're left with Patrick, a Congressional Kennedy without the charisma of a Jack or a Bobby or even his late father Ted. I say that without venom - I really like Pat Kennedy (and his unlikely friendship with our own Minnesotan Jim Ramstad), but it would appear that the dynastic days have finally drawn to a close, and this Mayo Clinic rehab alum will be content to quietly champion his causes without meriting undue spotlight. For that I commend him, and as a Midwesterner I respect his humility. From what I can tell, it seems that the story of the greatest generation Kennedy brothers has been one of failure to live up to expectations, and I salute Patrick for moving past that. Tonight on PBS they had a special highlighting the Joe Jr. through Ted generation and they kept mentioning the onus that was put on the survivors. When John died Bobby had to live up. When Bobby died Ted had to live up. It appears that the next generation of Kennedys is over that particular pressure. RFK Jr or Pat Kennedy aren't running for national office any time soon, and that is to their credit. And so with the passing of a lion, an entire coat of arms fades into American political history. We'll miss you, Edward.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Why we should argue with our dining room tables:

So, I'm frightened. I'm frightened of what might be happening in America this summer, and that some of our elected officials are complicit, if not actively supportive, in its institution. The now famous Barney Frank video is quite funny, if only because, as Jon Stewart pointed out in his commentary of it, this woman lives "on a planet where a mixed-race president and a gay Jew are considered Nazis." But what deeply disturbs me, and is so eloquently discussed by Frank Rich in this past Sunday's New York Times, is the specter of underlying violence the tone of the discourse about health care has begun to exhibit.
When a large group of Americans (quite frankly three is large enough) begin to come to town hall discussions with their elected officials brandishing guns (guns! I can't believe I just used the word in the same sentence as 'discussion'!) this country is reaching dangerously toward the realm of Simpsons mob parody.
Quite a few years ago, I was at a house party in LaCrosse WI. It was after a rock'n'roll show, and there were many people there whom I knew. There were also, however, quite a few whom I did not. One of the former, a laid back guy I had known for some time who wouldn't hurt a fly, apparently offended one of the latter with an off-hand remark. This dude had come to this jovial house party brandishing a freakin' bowie knife strapped to his belt, and now he was starting shit with my friend. I distinctly remember the sentence, "Where I come from if you say something like that you either put up or shut up," being spoken. At one point someone went downstairs to get the host and I found myself alone with these two guys, standing in between them (both at least six inches taller and of considerably bulkier builds than I). At no point did the guy in the Arctic Cat baseball cap reach for his knife, but at no point did anyone in the room forget it was there.
That is what I mean when I say the armed citizenry at the town hall meetings frightens me. One does not need to use a gun for people to be intimidated by it. In situations where tempers flare and emotions run high, it is awfully easy for judgment to become clouded and everyone is aware of the firearm's presence.
I do believe in the second amendment. I would be the last person to say guns should be banned from American life. I love venison. But having said that, I don't think a tool designed expressly to kill what it comes into contact with has any place at an event that is intended to be a civil discussion of issues vitally important to all members of a community. To introduce a firearm at a meeting with a member of the U.S. Congress is reckless at best, criminal at worst. How are rational people to see this behavior but as a threat to our and our elected officials' safety?
One thing Rich mentioned in his commentary was OK Sen. Tom Coburn's blaming of the government for this outpouring of intimidation. He quoted Coburn as saying on Meet The Press "Well, I'm troubled any time when we stop having confidence in our government, but we've earned it." This is the junior senator from a state that witnessed one of the most atrocious anti-government attacks in recent memory. How can he implicitly validate the mob mentality that threatens violence in one our most sacred institutions of the democratic process, the town hall?!
This is why we must argue with our dining room tables. Dining room tables are heavy, and can crush good legislation, taking cousin Barney or uncle Joe with them. We must get them to understand the actual language of the bill and the actual intention of the government. We must dispel any rumors of Nazi death panels or any other absurdity these people believe may be in this bill. Why can't we counter the bureaucrat argument with a simple explanation: "The government bureaucrat doesn't stand between you and your doctor - s/he pushes the insurance company bureaucrat out from between you and your doctor."? I hope we can get past this feeling that right-wingers have that government is trying to put their grandparents down, and start having a reasonable discussion about the very real and very important issue of health care, because it's about damn time we did.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Brother, can you spare nineteen million dimes?

I know I'm late writing about this three-week-old story, but here it is:
Jammie Thomas-Rasset has lost her case against the record industry. She's been ordered to pay them (record companies, not artists) $1.92M for the 24 songs she downloaded. $80K per song. I understand. She broke the law (or a jury found that she did, anyway). Here's my question: If those same songs are for sale for $1 a piece at the iTunes store, how is eighty grand even remotely commensurate with the offense she committed? She sought no profit from her actions, as noted in the original ruling from Judge Michael Davis, declaring her first trial a mistrial and noting that the original award of $222,000 was more than five hundred times the cost of buying each of the songs on individual CDs. Read the ruling here (specifically, section K: Need for Congressional Action, from the bottom of page 40 through page 42).
I guess my real beef with this case is that it is the record companies that are suing. I personally don't think anything is wrong with enjoying music for free if one is not seeking any personal gain beyond the good feeling one gets while listening to it. The New York Times Magazine this week has a really great brief interview with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco that touches on this subject. Deborah Solomon asked Tweedy about the decision to voluntarily stream Wilco's new album online for free after the tracks had surfaced illegally on the internet in May. Tweedy responded with what I think is a great mantra against anti-piracy laws:
"As a musician, I don’t want to expend any energy whatsoever preventing people from hearing our music. I think that’s antithetical to the idea of making it. Yes, we streamed it. Basically we set it up so people who felt guilty about stealing our music could donate some money to our favorite charity." (It's a great Q&A... take a look at it here.)
I agree. No artist should ever expend energy preventing people from experiencing his or her art. I would even take it one step further and say that the record companies, in suing for their own financial interests in the music, have betrayed their commitment to the artists. If someone hears for free a good song by a group or artist they are unfamiliar with, they are that much more likely to go out and seek more from that artist - becoming a fan and a regular purchaser of albums and concert tickets. Punishing Jammie Thomas-Rassett for downloading these songs with a judgment that will likely financially cripple her for the rest of her life serves no good for the artists promoted by the industry.
One final note: I was curious, so I wikipedia'd the Capitol v. Thomas case, and found out what the actual 24 songs were... I think of all the indignities this poor woman has endured, by far the worst might be that she is now liable for almost two million dollars for this particular playlist:

Aerosmith "Cryin'"
Bryan Adams "Somebody"
Def Leppard "Pour Some Sugar on Me"
Destiny’s Child "Bills, Bills, Bills"
Gloria Estefan "Here We Are"; "Coming Out of the Dark"; "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You"
Goo Goo Dolls "Iris"
Green Day "Basket Case"
Guns N' Roses "Welcome to the Jungle"; "November Rain"
Janet Jackson "Let's Wait Awhile"
Journey "Faithfully"; "Don't Stop Believing"
Linkin Park "One Step Closer"
No Doubt "Bathwater"; "Hella Good"; "Different People"
Reba McEntire "One Honest Heart"
Richard Marx "Now and Forever"
Sarah McLachlan "Possession"; "Building a Mystery"
Sheryl Crow "Run Baby Run"
Vanessa L. Williams "Save the Best for Last"

I don't want to judge, but that's what one does in a trial situation. With a couple of exceptions for the classics on the list (see lines 8 and 10), I'd say this list is worth all of 38 cents and an MTC bus transfer.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I'm well, thanks.

I got called off of work today, and was a little bitter about it. Lisa came home and I walked up to the market for milk. There was, as always, some idiot in front of me buying seven thousand candy bars with her EBT food-stamp card. I was in a foul mood standing there with my purchase, waiting to set down my two freaking dollars and go home, and the woman behind me said, "How you doin' today?" I assumed she was talking to someone else in the store until she came around my left side and repeated herself with eye contact, verbatim, with the exact same cadence: "How you doin' today?" I was a little taken aback, and then answered, "Very well, you?" She said she was well too. So all is well.
What she probably doesn't know, though, is that this turned my whole day around. when I left for the store I was a much maligned proletariat denied a day's work and forced to spend more on milk. I had to put up with the riff-raff of the neighborhood in front of me in line and was feeling surly about everything. As soon as this woman asked me how I was, though, I thought for half a second and said "very well, you?" I guess I hadn't thought about it, but in the grand scheme my life is pretty decent, and I'm lucky that the worst thing I can complain about is some trashy shit in front of me buying junk food using state funds. That's really not that bad. That's just living in this neighborhood. So when she asked that innocent question (twice), she brought to my attention the fact that I really am, in fact, quite well. I could gripe, but overall things are pretty okay. I assume that's what she meant when she replied with the same answer - she's probably got a mortgage or rent payment she's worried about, and maybe the house next door is vacant and haven to unsavories, but damnit, she lives here and cares about who else does. She genuinely wanted to know if I was doing alright, and genuinely wanted me to know that she was too.
So thank you, Quick Stop lady, for some much needed perspective on my day. I am very well, thank you, and I hope you can say the same. Let's do this again sometime soon.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Foreclosure Blues

Well, the house next door to me has been condemned. On the south side of my house, there was a foreclosure about two years ago. It finally sold last month, and the guy is treating it as a flip-job. I hope he does good work on it and sells it to a nice young family, but who knows? On the north side there was a rental that was owned by a man who also owned half a dozen or so other properties in the neighborhood, and rented them all. Apparently (according to officer Jackson of the distressed properties division of the MPD) he lost all of his rentals to foreclosure. This particular one was peopled with a large family of many children who would spend afternoons out playing in the back yard. I once fell off a ladder saving their cat, who'd gotten stuck on the roof above their porch in the January chill. They seemed like decent people.
The big orange placard on the plywood over the front door says the reason for condemnation was "lack of required utility water." So from what I can gather, the renters (the decent people) must have left on the first of the month, when I was out of town and Lisa was at work all day. Since that day, we've seen people in the yard poking around the house on several occasions. We assumed they were employed by the owner to fix it up for the next renters. However, they were apparently looting the house for its copper pipes coming in from the street.
Such is life in 2009 on the North Side of Minneapolis. Yesterday there was a garbage truck that came down the alley and idled for a while. Its occupants spent the better part of an hour collecting the detritus from a family hastily vacated and carting it all off to a dump in some unknown and distant suburb. I can only hope the bulldozers are not close behind.
Over the past year or so I've watched as at least twelve homes in my neighborhood have been quickly leveled after default. Perfectly good, sturdy homes that have stood for decades erased from the landscape because the owners couldn't make the payments and the banks that owned the mortgages didn't want them. As nice as it would be to buy the vacated lot and plant my neighbor's yard into a giant vegetable garden, I really hope someone steps up to restore this house. When I drive down West Broadway I see homes that are surrounded by six, sometimes ten vacant lots, and all I can think is that it looks a lot like the farm houses you see in rural Minnesota. Enveloped by naked ground, these homes don't belong in the city. We live in a community that is defined by density. If we can't pack people into a city block, we don't deserve to be classified as an Urban Area. The answer to this housing crisis is not to push more people into the few apartment buildings on Penn Ave, but to allow a giant family of many children and an errant cat to inhabit a perfectly good house a block off the main drag that is solid and unwanted, except by said family. Good luck to whomever owns it now, in getting the copper replaced, and in selling it I hope to a couple of people who will love it for what it is: the beginning of a spectacular life. We don't need more flat vacant ground on the North Side.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Unkie Kev

So, I've known my sister for quite some time. Almost thirty years, in fact. I remember when audio cassettes first came out and we'd record radio shows in the living room. Everyone else hated their siblings, but I couldn't see what was so horrible about a big sister. I remember when she thought I was a cool brother and would take me to high school parties when I was like thirteen. I can't believe my parents never said anything when I'd come home smelling like smoke (for the record, I didn't start smoking myself until several years later). I remember really understanding Dylan for the first time when I went to visit her at UW Madison. It was the first time I associated 'folk' with 'cool' - the beginning of my grassroots philosophy of public service, to stretch a metaphor. I remember the crazy pride that filled my chest when I spent a week with her in the Dominican Republic while she was working with the Peace Corps (see the 'Under the Mosquito Net' blog on the right). I had honestly never known any one who was making such a tangible difference in the lives of others. I remember when she first moved to San Francisco. It was so cool to hang out in a different city and know I knew someone, so I belonged - kinda. I remember when she got married to Bryan. I had been going through some tough personal times, but she (they both) went to such lengths to make sure I was okay, despite the heavy plate I know was in front of them.
My sister Bert is one of my favorite people in the world, and I could not be happier that she's going to have a tiny Bertlet that I can be the creepy Midwestern uncle to. Bert, I promise I won't teach him or her any swears until they're old enough to know not to say them in front of you. Just please don't give them the square-head haircut that Mom gave you. All the best from fly-over land, and most sincere congratulations to you and to Bryan!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Waiting for that midterm election...

So, Yes We Did, and all that. I'm jazzed. I really am. I've been super happy with Obama's actions as our chief executive so far. I don't even mind that he bowed to a foreign sovereign (in fact I don't really see what the big deal is). I feel really great that our eight year national nightmare is over.
However... for those of you who live in other parts of the country, it's springtime in America. For Minnesotans, we still have two years of our state nightmare left. Until 2010, we are still being lorded over by a man who I can only hope will go down in history nationally as a momentary hopeful, then forgotten, but state-wide as the single most obstructionist governor we've ever seen. Last year Tim Pawlenty vetoed a state record 34 bills - almost 8% of all vetoes issued by all MN governors since 1939. That's just one of his six years so far, and it looks like he's coming back with the same force this session. Last year, Democrats could only muster enough crossover votes to override one of them, and for that the six Republicans who did put the good of the state first to enact our first gas tax hike in 20 years were stripped of their committee assignments and (all but one) defeated handily in their suburban districts in November. Pawlenty just last year vetoed everything from a minimum wage hike to stem cell research to helping homeowners facing foreclosure to fixing our roads and bridges to a NON BINDING resolution calling for more openness with Cuba.
Here's my take: Pawlenty doesn't actually have the power to write and enact legislation, only to deny legislation from taking effect. Therefore, his ridiculous obstructionist pen is a study in the difference between doing nothing and doing something. He doesn't like what his options for action are, so he has denied any action from going forward. Meanwhile, the potholes are bigger and more plentiful (in my non-scientific study) than they have been in years, traffic and smog keep getting worse, more destitute people are slipping through the housing and healthcare cracks, and fewer bright young people can get an education simply because they are born into poor families. Guess what? Doing nothing is ALWAYS worse than doing something. While the cost of services and maintenance has continued to rise with the rest of the country, we have not been able to fund the programs we need to maintain service at the levels we in Minnesota are used to, just because our executive is under the thumb of local anti-tax interests and in the spotlight of national hype. I honestly hope T-Paw (even his nickname makes me want to beat my head against a wall) does run for national office in 2012, because it means he'd be ill-advised to run for Governor again in '10, on the likely chance he'd be defeated and rendered moot.
So, for all of you on the coasts, or in the Southwest, or even around the Midwest (cheers, Iowa), yes, I'm happy for you all. But please, send some positive, progressive vibes our way here in what used to be one of the bluest states in the union. And I believe we still are (we've gone Democrat in Presidential races longer than anyone else in recent history) - we've just been hijacked by the powerful marketing machine of the anti-tax lobby and forced down a bumpy, under-serviced road to neglect.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

They run everyone's plates on the north side.

So, I found out last night that nothing we do is really private. Allow me to explain:
I was on my way to the curling club to play our first playdown game of the spring, and I got no more than ten blocks from my house and I saw cherries in my mirror. I pulled over, and got out my ID. As I was digging in my wallet for my insurance card, the cop said, "Don't bother, you're suspended. Step out of the car, please."
This was news to me. I stepped out of my car, and they led me back to the squad car. With my hands on the trunk of the cruiser, she gave me the full pat-down.
An aside: when I'm on long car drives, I often find myself in truck stop bathrooms. If I happen to have three quarters on me, I find it funny to get the weird sex-toy items from the vending machine. I do this not with any intention of ever using the items, but because I find it funny and interesting to see what I get for my 3/4 dollar and to see the hilarious packaging that these items come in.
Back at the scene of the infraction, she was patting me down, and she took everything out of my pockets and set it on the trunk of the squad. My camera, my gloves, my Moleskine notepad, my wallet. She reached into the breast pocket of my coat and pulled out the "Horny Goat Weed" aphrodisiac supplement, took one look at it, and put it back into my pocket.
They then sat me in the back of the car (It was tiny back there - I can't imagine being over six feet with my hands behind my back and trying to fit in there), and I sat thinking this would be the time I ended up in lockup. I'd get bailed out, and whomever came to save me would stand there silently judging as the clerk on the other side of the glass assessed what had been in my pockets: "One Nikon Coolpix camera, one leather billfold, one 'Horny Goat Weed' herbal aphrodisiac." I was mortified just thinking about it.
They went through the contents of my backseat:
Cop #1: You know, you've got quite a bit of garbage in back, there.
Me: Yeah, I've been hibernating over the winter - I was going to clean it next week.
Cop #2: Do you have a girlfriend or a wife or something?
Me: Yes, I have a girlfriend, and she contributes to that mess.
Cop #2: Well then disregard my next statement.
Cop #1: What about those muffins? How long have they been in there?
Me: Those are carrot cake cupcakes. I just put them in there today to bring to the club with me!
All I wanted was to get to the club and wreak some havoc on sheet six, but someone had to criticize the way I live my commuter life.
In retrospect I have no reason to be upset, since they went ridiculously easy on me, considering I did in fact have an unpaid ticket from six months ago ("We should tow your car, but since you live so close you can drive home and park legally, but if a Mpls cop sees you driving again you'll get your car towed."), but at the same time, I feel a little violated. I mean, they made fun of my automotive hygiene. That hurts. I always thought my car was a sanctuary. If I invited a friend in, that was a privilege, and anyone curious about how I lived my life was SOL. Pull me over, yes. Drag me out of the car if you have reason to believe I'm up to no good. That's fine. But for god's sake, don't make fun of the fast food wrappers in my back seat. That's like finding Lipitor in someone's medicine cabinet, and making a cholesterol joke.
On a happier note, I got a hold of a friend to pick me up and take me to the curling club. The other team tied it up in the seventh end, and it looked like they were going to mop the ice with us. Shaun, our skip, came through on the last rock, threading it into the house to sit point and we barely won the game. Looks like I got ridiculously lucky twice last night.

Monday, March 30, 2009

File Under: Infernal Racket

I'm just going to pretend that I didn't just take a two-year hiatus from writing a blog.

For the last thirty-four hours or so the SUV parked in front of my next door neighbor's house has been beeping every two seconds or so. Every time I walk outside to take out garbage, or grill, or clean the garage, or whatever, it's there. *beep* A creepy soundtrack *beep* to all my outdoor *beep* activities. *beep* Last time I was out there I made believe I was under the North Sea tracking Russian subs.
I can only assume that, barring some weird homemade Sputnik behind the third row seats, this is their car alarm sending a distress signal that it is slowly dying. What I don't get is how it has been going on all afternoon, all night, all morning, all afternoon, and all evening again without anyone doing anything about it. My neighbors are a bit of a mystery to me. They are around a lot, and there are a lot of them. They have at least four cars, one of which is an all but abandoned El Dorado with a shattered windshield that was almost towed during the last snow emergency, and another of which is this insane beeping SUV. But then, sometimes I don't see them for days on end. Of course this is one of those times.
I'm not going to pretend that cops on the north side of MPLS don't have more important things to concentrate on than a nuisance elderly car alarm, but isn't there something that can be done about this? If the alarm were actually going off, they'd have been here within the first - I dunno - four or so hours. But instead I'm being subjected to the soundtrack of history's longest game of Pong. What if the neighbors don't come home for a week? The SUV is the only one of their cars that is out there now. What if they took the others on some extended caravan road trip?
What really scares me about this prospect is that every so often the wind will pick up or a car will drive by and I miss a beep. And I am actually confused. I stop whatever I'm doing, my ears perk up, and I think, 'Is it gone? I don't think I'm prepared for silence! What will I do?!' I really hope they get back and turn it off soon, because - like those first cigarettes outside the lunchroom in highschool - I fear this is one of those things that will get harder and harder to part with as I become more and more acclimated to it.