Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Today in old news


One day, in the distant future, when the U.S. recovers its economy and its marbles, Americans are going to be grateful they didn't live in this age. And one way they'll express this sentiment is by asking, "Can you believe some leaders wanted poor children to labor for their own school lunches?"

The idea that children should have to labor for the trappings of public education smacks of something bred in a vacuum-packed ivory tower — probably by a self-styled libertarian who was born an inch from home plate and thinks he chose the uterus that hit the triple. In his mind, poor people should start young in learning the lesson to not be poor.

I minored in political science in college. One of the characteristics of a political science student (and I'm not innocent) is insufferable ideological rigidity. It's very easy to sit in a classroom, study philosophies that jibe with what you believe and declare that such should be the unblinking law of the universe. These departments are valuable as incubators of thought; throwing shit on the wall to see what sticks requires walls, after all. This is where such rigidity belongs, because it's impractical in the real world.

Yes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. But does that mean children shouldn't have free lunches? Of course not. Our taxes can pick up the tabs for those. I don't mind. It seems as good a use of government funds as any. It's not really in anyone's interest to have kids starve — they can't learn as well, they get sick and we pay for the consequences one way or another. That problem doesn't vanish just because we think life can be governed like in an Ayn Rand comic book.

I expect that sort of mindset from young idiots. But not from people who have a chance at altering the law.

The problem isn't work ethic; it's that many of our politicians are still stuck in school. And they aren't learning anything.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

And ask why the clock is on a cellular telephone

Here's a real gem from The Blaze, Glenn Beck's personal fusion of disinfotainmation and endarkenment:

If Republicans invented a time machine, they'd probably go to Hawaii to check Obama's birth certificate first. And still not be satisfied.
I don't pick on Glenn Beck much, at least in relation to how much he deserves it. Sure, I've done it lots and lots and lots of times, and sometimes on posts that are actually about football, but I could do it once an hour and still not keep pace. The man anchors the bottom of the pundit barrel. He's notable mainly for the empire he's leveraged from catering to people who like entertaining and self-affirming lies. It's so easy to mock Beck that it's become too cheap to do so. But even a broken, insane clock inevitably gets it right, and in this case The Blaze (and apparently, the Nat Geo Channel) has. The above graphic is perhaps as valuable as any as I've seen to illustrate the biggest roadblocks facing Republicans today.

Their nation is Imagination. In sports, it's a common and fun exercise to rate all-time teams. We can argue all night about how, say, the 1985 Chicago Bears would have fared against the 1972 Miami Dolphins. But if the games didn't happen in an actual field of play, we'll never know. Any of an infinite amount of variables — time, place, momentum, mindset, to name just four — could profoundly affect even the most settled bets. Ultimately, all such arguments are conjecture. 

So is this hypothetical race. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are not — never, no how, no way — ever going to face off in a presidential race. Both men are hamstrung from running for third terms by the 22nd Amendment. Reagan is further limited by being dead. Which means that it’s less pointless to speculate about the above-mentioned Superthetical Bowl — most players from the ’85 Bears and ’72 Dolphins are still capable of showing up. But OK, let’s pretend this is a real contest and not ridiculous:

The race pits two landsliders, so it wouldn’t be a landslide. Both enjoyed huge advantages against politically vulnerable opponents, and both sailed to re-election. The Blazers predict a 58-42 Reagan victory, which is a blowout but still a better Democratic percentage than either Jimmy Carter (41%) or Walter Mondale (40.6%) could manage. I think, however, that it’s a mistake to assume one would tower over the other. If we're going with Reagan-era voters, Obama would pull all the Reagan Democrats; if today's voters factor in, well, we already know they outnumber Obama's ferociously apocalyptic opposition. Either way, I’d give a slight edge to the incumbent. Speaking of today's voters:

The youth support is a BS statistic. I turn 33 in a month, having been born the year Reagan first ran for office. I watched his last day in office in my 3rd-grade class. That puts me near the edge of the graphic's youth demographic. Most of what 18- to 34-year-olds know about Reagan comes from the tremendously whitewashed and deified history of the man put forth by Republican revisionists. But even as a demigod, Reagan polls at only 51 percent over Obama — a president we watch with critical eyes in real time.

Did I mention Reagan is dead? This is perhaps the saddest part. The Gipper has been in his grave for nine years, and out of the Oval Office for 24. It's long past time for the Republicans to move on from the 102-year-old. Their politics sure have.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Today in awkward headlines

From Bleacher Report's Daily Radar e-mail newsletter
Congratulations to B.J. and Justin Upton of the Atlanta Braves for replicating their brotherly blasts from 1938, when they were with the Boston Bees. I think you'll agree that they've aged very well.

True story (cockroach edition)

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a voodoo shop in New Orleans. As I browsed through the bookshelf, I heard the owner shriek. She spied a giant cockroach parked in the middle of our circle of people.

"Kill it!" the owner begged me.

"Yeah, kill it, Ian!" my mom echoed.

I assumed a Captain Morgan pose before second-guessing myself. I don't like to crush bugs. Part of it is that I hate to kill anything, but also that I hate the way killing a cockroach sounds and feels. I don't like mashed roach on the floor or my shoes. Also, I used to routinely crush bugs at the height of my teenage arrogance. Oh, and I was in a voodoo shop. In that split second, with all that rushing in my brain, I muttered words that made me cringe even as I was saying them:

"Uh, it's against my principles."

With that, the owner stomped the roach into a puddle of pus. Mom and another customer groaned. So much for principle, huh?

At least the roaches love me.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

New Rules

Rule #229: Photoflop
If you must Photoshop a black person out of your vaguely racist political mailer, at the very least don't use the face right next to the altered face. It makes you look bad.

Rule #230: Manadox 
Anyone who thinks a "Man Card" is a thing doesn't deserve one.

Rule #231: Penney for your thoughts
Americans have to admit that they shop stupidly. JCPenney recently abandoned its new consistent-low-price system because customers missed the rush of sales and using coupons, even though said deals are mostly the product of jacking up prices and affixing sale tags to merchandise. Similarly, grocery stores employ layouts designed to spread out necessities and increase impulse buys. All of this is common knowledge, and yet people not only accept it, they enjoy it. For all the complaints about high taxes, high gas prices and welfare, people sure seem to enjoy buying things they otherwise wouldn't because they "save" money by doing so. There's an even better way to save money than through doorbuster deals — it's called not buying what you don't need. It's always 100 percent off!

Rule #232: Miranda righteous
It's good to see that Dzohkhar Tsarnaev is going through the U.S. court system rather than being tried as an enemy combatant. Within our borders, this should always be the way.

Rule #233: Settle, downers
Always shoot for the moon. You have the rest of your life to join the naysayers on the ground.

Rule #234: The cycle of life
It's always darkest before the dawn. Sometimes the nights are long, but daytime always has its turn.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The case for not coming home

Rod Dreher recently wrote an article for the Baton Rouge Business Report, “The case for coming home,” in which he chronicles his triumphant return to Louisiana after years in professional exile. He writes of wanting to return to his family and to his deep cultural ties. Many are hailing his story as a virtual template of what’s to love in the Bayou State. Reading it proved to be an emotional trial for me; I had to stop several times to collect myself. My own return to Louisiana has been a far more ambiguous ride than his.

Dreher and I are at very different checkpoints in the walk of life. He’s an older family man with a long record of professional success. And, judging by his frequent use of words like “grace” and shoehorned jabs at Democrats, is likely a religious conservative as well. I’m a relatively young, single man with a decent amount of success and am an unabashed, secular liberal.

Still, it’s not the differences, but the similarities in our conclusions that make Dreher’s story so poignant to me. We agree that Louisiana is a place to sacrifice professional opportunities and big-city trappings for family and culture. For him, that tradeoff is a happy given. For me, the merit is less clear.

THE FIRST GOODBYE

Before dawn on the morning of Feb. 3, 2007, I arrived at Lafayette Regional Airport for an important flight. As I entered the boarding area, the security officer checked my Louisiana driver’s license, which was set to expire in three months.

“It’s time to renew your license,” she told me.

“Well, I’m moving to Missouri today, so I’ll get one there,” I replied.

At the moment my jet parted ways with the tarmac, I gazed out at the dark terrain of Lafayette, La. — in my 26 years, the only city I’d ever called home. At that instant, a paraphrased line from the movie Weekend at Bernie’s came to mind:

“So long, Louisiana. It’s been fun,” I mouthed silently. “But ... not really.”

I was more than ready to leave. My new job in Springfield, Mo., ended the longest and most baffling two years of my life. In May 2005, I graduated with a master’s degree in English from the University of Louisiana. I thought having a higher degree, combined with my journalistic experience, would ensure that I quickly found professional footing. Throughout college, I routinely turned down unsolicited job offers — but now that I was available, those offers had dried up. I landed a series of interviews for jobs at several Acadiana-area publications, but was ultimately rejected for all of them. I had reason to believe that my past opinion writing factored into some of their decisions. I took that personally — and hard. Later in the year, I had to sell my beloved, longtime truck for $48 — a symbolic amount that covered a tow — to a mechanic in New Iberia because I couldn’t afford to fix its blown engine or bring it home. That forced me to quit the one freelance reporting gig I had left.

Every night that year I’d stay up until dawn, pacing in my bedroom at my parents’ house, pouring out tears and wondering if I’d ever get out. If I’d ever find a job. If I’d ever get a car or be able to fix my broken bicycle. If I’d ever again have another reason to venture outside my neighborhood. Wondering why I did everything right and still struggled to make anything of myself.

It took me 16 long months to land any kind of job at all, and that was working in the stockroom at Target in Lafayette. The job itself wasn’t bad, and I wasn’t even the only grad student back there. Still, I walked into work each day hoping that none of my past professors or college friends saw me in uniform. I felt like I’d failed miserably. And that my hometown, the supposed paradise on Earth that no one ever wanted to leave, didn’t want me around.

By that point, the feeling was mutual. I had grown jaded about Louisiana, a place I’d always sworn I’d never leave. All my life I never fully fit in, but was still quick to defend the area and its family ties, its culture, its friendliness and its quirkiness. But in light of my difficulty in finding gainful employment, Louisiana seemed all the more like a right-wing hellhole where the roads sucked, education wasn’t a priority, businesses could pollute to their heart’s content and fake manners mattered more than real compassion. Oh, and it was humid too.

It was time to stop being from somewhere. I had to start getting somewhere.

GO MIDWEST, YOUNG MAN

One of the first questions a co-worker asked me when I moved to Springfield was, “Do you hunt squirrels?”

The question was the first of a long series of Midwestern culture shocks. One day I brought a king cake into the newsroom and several people asked what it was — and most who did know had never been to Mardi Gras. Strangers often bristled when I was friendly with them. Their Jesus was different than Louisiana’s Jesus. The festivals didn’t quite compare. And I had no family ties in the area. But for me, the most jarring change was apathy toward the New Orleans Saints. They broadcast Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams games instead. Not cool!

But Springfield had considerable upshots as well. Bike trails. A vibrant YMCA. Milder summers. Cheap rent. Low crime. Easy recycling. Great libraries. Quality infrastructure. Flag football every Sunday. Diversity in opinion. I had a job in my field at which I excelled, where I was respected, had lots of friends and enjoyed a laid-back office culture. My time there helped bring into focus what I really wanted out of my daily life. My work, my hobbies, my friends and my pursuits all arose from scratch and thus more accurately reflected who I was. Missouri was the first place where I truly built my own life.

It wasn’t perfect, though. Sometimes I’d lapse into the same lonely despair I’d had in Lafayette. I got tired of staring at my old cell phone when talking with family. My nights, weekends and holidays belonged to work. I occasionally worried that, after paying all my bills, I’d only have a few hundred dollars left (heh). Combined with a looming job insecurity that brewed in 2009, I began seeing green grass where I had once seen only dirt.

WHO DAT GONNA HIT DAT ROAD?

February 7, 2010. The New Orleans Saints faced the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. If ever I wanted to celebrate something, this was it. Every other year in Springfield, I’d been invited to at least three Super Bowl parties (and would be the following year as well). But that game, I watched totally alone in my apartment. My local friends probably (and understandably) didn’t want to be around that level of intensity (and also, some of them were Colts fans). When the Saints won, I never wanted to be in Louisiana more in my life. The homesickness that had long eluded me was officially in motion.

As luck would have it, my mom was scheduled for surgery two days after the game. (That isn’t the lucky part, though she did sail through it and was 100 percent within days.) The following week was Mardi Gras or, as it became known, Lombardi Gras. Because of my mom’s recovery (that was the official reason), I got to visit Lafayette that week. What a wonderful time to be there! Family, friends, parties and football — it was everything I loved about my home state rolled up into one memorable week. That visit and a subsequent one that summer cemented my plan to get back to my roots.

Meanwhile in Missouri, anxiety over the fate of our jobs loomed large. We were informed that many of our copy editing positions were heading to Iowa at some indeterminate point in the future. Some of my co-worker friends left pre-emptively, magnifying my sense of isolation. Perhaps as a result, I threw myself into more activities, winding up having the best year I ever had in Springfield. Nevertheless, I had my eye on leaving the whole time.

I joked at the time that I’d probably not have it so good for the next 10 years. But that was OK, because Louisiana is about family and culture. The important things in life.

THE BUMPY, ENDLESS EXPANSE

In February 2011, after exactly four years in Missouri, I drove back to Louisiana for good in an overloaded car. I had no concrete plans for the future, but had enough money saved up to buffer the next few months. I looked forward to reconnecting with my parents, siblings, cousins and friends. For the first few months, I did exactly that, and it was fun. Everyone I talked to asked me the same question: “Why did you move back?” Depending on who was asking, different words would be emphasized in that question.

However, it didn’t take long for me to start feeling doubts about my decision. For three months, my car — which I’d always maintained and always rode smooth as glass — continued to creak. At first I thought it was from having overloaded it on the trip. But it turns out I just wasn’t used to Louisiana’s terrible roads anymore. Time and time again, I’d get these kinds of little reminders that my home region was rougher than what I’d known for the past few years. Insurance was more expensive. A favorite business was long gone. A so-called “bike path” was actually a dangerous bike lane. But it was OK because, you know, family and culture.

In July, I landed a job in Baton Rouge in my field, which to date remains the only full-time, professional job I’ve ever held in Louisiana (unless a 3-month college internship also counts). However, I wasn’t a great fit there, and resigned seven months later. Another problem was that I struggled to carve out a life in Baton Rouge that reflected who I was. The city had few of the trappings of Springfield and less culture than Lafayette. I was on my own, but I wasn’t me. Attempts to land a job in New Orleans, which started well before my departure, went nowhere.

For seven more months, I lived alone in Baton Rouge while eking out a partial living as a movie extra. Fun work, but definitely not a sustainable lifestyle. And there was still the problem of having little meaningful to do in my downtime. I had to carry my bike down three flights of stairs just to go riding in a boring yet treacherous suburb. At my complex, a teenager brought a handgun to the swimming pool. I was paying as much in rent as some house notes, and still my power went out frequently for no reason. As my lease and money ran out, I lived on 99-cent frozen pizzas and $2 bags of chips. But at least people called me "sir" while ringing me up. The important things in life.

At the end of September 2012, on a torrentially rainy day, I packed my things and moved back to my parents’ house in Lafayette. I’ve been there ever since, with the majority of my belongings in storage. It’s been months since I’ve opened the storage unit. I still work in movies occasionally, but it’s usually such a cost-neutral hassle that I don’t bother much. I look mainly out of state for jobs, because I’m still set on doing something that’s personally meaningful. I’ve been told I’m too picky for doing this, but life is short and I want to explore. I know what’s here and can always return, but only if and when I’m ready to do so.

For now, I find myself once again in the same predicament as before, pacing my bedroom in my parents’ house and wondering if I’ll ever again find a job. If I’ll be able to fix my broken bicycle. If I’ll ever leave my neighborhood ... again. Wondering why it’s still a struggle after all this time.

Two years ago, I made a noble attempt to corral everything I needed and loved in the same place. But that isn’t always practical. And even when it is, sometimes you remember why you left in the first place. As thrilled as my family is to have me back, I think they liked me better when I wasn’t down and out. And constantly using their bathroom.

The irresistible pull of Louisiana manifests itself in different ways for different folks. I know plenty of people who left as soon as they graduated high school and haven’t returned since. They are perfectly happy in California or New York or Texas or Africa or wherever else they wound up. If asked, a few will express genuine resentment for the state. But most won’t. They’ll speak fondly of it and how excited they always are to visit. They make the most of their sojourns by immersing themselves in family, friends and the much-touted culture. And then, when the time’s up, they go back to the lives they’ve carved out for themselves elsewhere.

Dreher is no longer one of those people. Turns out, I still am.

Here’s hoping good times roll again for both of us.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

In defense of human decompression

Last night, after authorities in Watertown, Mass., captured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev alive following an extensive manhunt, scenes of cheering occurred there and in nearby Boston. Some people have criticized these cheers, equating them to some degree to those in other countries who cheer bloodshed.

I beg to differ. 

One year in Springfield, a winter blizzard covered the entire city, and only those who couldn't avoid missing work (like me, naturally) were (sparingly) encouraged to leave their homes. The storm and its paralyzing effects lasted more than a week, during which my abilities to drive and walk were each squared. Then, one day, snow and ice had sufficiently melted to make most roads passable. On top of that, the sky was completely clear, temperatures had warmed up and many people still had no obligations.

In other words, massive traffic jams clogged the entire city. But you would be hard-pressed to find anyone typically irritated by it that day. After sitting cooped up at home for an entire week, not being able to see anything through the windows, people were automatically happy just to be able to not do that anymore.

In Boston, we're talking about people not being able to leave their homes by police order (not that they needed such orders) to do anything at all for two days. That's far, far more intense than the situation I lived through. So I'm not at all surprised — or upset — to see them release that tension among their neighbors, whether through laughter or any other emotion. They have their city — and their lives — back. The ones that they deserve as free people and as people in general.

Also, it's worth cheering because police took the suspect alive and thus can subject him to the non-mob justice system that separates us from terrorists.

Well, OK, the "U-S-A" chanting is hard to forgive on multiple levels. 

Otherwise, lighten up. If Bostonians can do it after what they went through, so can we outside observers.

Monday, April 15, 2013

More thoughts on the Boston Marathon tragedy

• The best way to deal with the tragedy is to be ourselves. One thing that always bothered me about 9/11 was that, in the aftermath, we failed to do that. We were afraid. Even as we waved the American flag, we had second thoughts about our resilience. Civil liberties became peacetime indulgences. Our justice system wasn't suitable for trying terrorist suspects. We declared humor dead, wondered about the fates of major cultural events and even questioned the viability of elections. The so-called beacon of freedom wrapped itself in plastic sheeting and duct tape, emerging only to go shopping on the then-president's advisement. Things will never be the same. Watch what you say!

If such fear didn't necessarily mean the terrorists won, neither did it speak well of American ideals. We're not supposed to cower to cowards. It's what they want, and it's what we shouldn't want. I hope the 2014 Boston Marathon draws more runners (and larger crowds) than ever before. The race, with its eclectic crowds, worldwide participation and sense of community, epitomizes America at its best. It should continue to reflect that spirit.

• That said, I realize that some American actions overseas have led to the deaths of innocents. That's inexcusable and deserves investigation. But that illustrates the contrast between politics and humanity. I suspect that most citizens of most countries just want what Americans want — peace, safety and prosperity. We're all more alike than different and would harbor no real animosity toward each other if we could meet. Bad political decisions and/or handfuls of highly motivated sociopaths are where the real friction lies.

• We still don't know who's to blame for this tragedy and thus it's too early to speculate. But I'm confident that whoever it was, is a worthless coward or group of cowards. Call it a hunch. My hope is that we capture him/them quickly and give him/them a fair trial. Because again, that's what we're supposed to be about.

• It's amazing what people will pass on as fact when little is known. I saw several heart-tugging, full-on graphics that claimed the 8-year-old who died was an adorable girl/boy (depending on which stock running-child picture they used) who (in one case at least) was running for the Sandy Hook victims.

Never mind that the explosions happened among the spectators, or that no media outlet had released a name. It made for a poignant meme and that was that. Turns out the deceased is a boy named Martin Richard of Dorchester, who was waiting with his family for his father to cross to finish line. His mom and sister were also injured, with another sister unhurt. Truth is sad enough without the fiction.

Speaking of fiction:

• Ah, Alex Jones and the "false flag" trolls. Get a life, guys. You're to conspiracies what stoners are to pot legalization — the absolute worst poster boys. Maybe if you didn't think everything in the universe was a conspiracy, somebody would take you seriously. I'm not really sure why the federal government would undertake a complicated plot to curtail civil liberties when we've been more than OK with giving them up on our own. More likely, a very small man (or men) got together, planted some pipe bombs and exploded them. It may be unsexy to admit it, but the simplest explanations are usually the correct ones.

• Despite being busy with our respective pursuits and often not seeing eye-to-eye politically, my sister and I spent several hours watching the disaster coverage and talking nearly nonstop about the bombing, politics and life. When I finally turned off the reports, I did so confident that we will break through our artificial boundaries and rally as people, no matter who or where we are. At our best, that's what we do.

Let's be our best.

Testing the limits of human endurance

I've always had trouble watching movies (such as The Sum of All Fears or The Dark Knight Rises) where a major attack happens at a sporting event. It's not that I feel differently about other public explosions, but there's something about a sporting-event massacre that makes me want to cry even when it's fake.

Part of it, I think, is that such events are meant to be happy diversions, and they draw eclectic crowds of all ages. Also, I'm a sports fan. Today's tragedy at the Boston Marathon brought it even closer to home for me, because of my running background. I've run in a couple of 5Ks. But more crucially, I spent seven years setting up all manner of road races, from cross country courses to track meets to triathlons to major annual 5Ks. These, more than football and other arena events, are typically loose, fun and populated with an intensely devoted fan base. The work was hard, but it was also tremendously rewarding. Runners are a community and rarely harbor any hard feelings. Spectators tend to be friendly as well and finish lines lack the police-state security ever present even at local games.

It's especially heartbreaking to see people literally blown apart while running. While doing something that may well have otherwise been the highlight of their lives. Beyond even being in the line of duty, these were people just out to have a fun day. It's a day forever marred for some reason that isn't yet clear, and will certainly never be justified or the least bit human. And we're likely to see more ramped-up security and fear as a result. For big-city festivals. For marathons. Jesus.

I'm in a public place right now and it's all I can do not to cry.

Why? 

Just ... why.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Pun-free title for Sprint Cup shooting post


I'm not going to spout the expected snark about this. Any death is a tragedy, especially suicide.

But I can't ignore the reported fact that Texas law forbids bringing firearms into the racetrack. It seems antithetical to the guns-equal-freedom stance we so often hear these days — not to mention, antithetical to the reputation of Texas law.

Someone apparently realized at some point that weapons capable of discharging lethal projectiles had no business in public venues that routinely draw tens of thousands of spectators. And enough people in the legislature of the nation's second-largest state (and first-largest in terms of Second Amendment sacrosanctity) agreed with that person to make it the law of the land. And rightfully so.

The irony here isn't that someone died of a gunshot wound at an NRA-sponsored event — that's actually not ironic at all. No, the real irony is that the event was subject to existing and sensible gun control. And no one had to die to make that point.

On a similar note, the NRA declined the prominent sponsor placement typically associated with bankrolling such races. Both the racetrack gun laws and the NRA's down-low decision are tacit admissions that the lust for a firearm anarchy isn't as practical — or palatable — as many fantasize.

In other words, even the NRA knows the NRA is full of it.

When will their apologists finally figure that out?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Just another pretty Facebook

Leigh Clark's article on Huffington Post today is interesting because it touches on something I mentioned earlier in a blog post: that Facebook users' content has declined over the years.

I think that's true. On any given day in 2006 and 2007, I could scour Facebook (MySpace too) and read lots of notes, blogs and bulletins by a wide variety of people. For a brief, shining moment, nearly everyone was a writer. Even when they shared pictures, lots of text went with them. These burgeoning sites had lots of room to fill, and people filled them. Even when they did so with videos, gaudy backgrounds and other frills, there was a unique, collage feel to it.

But as the years went by, as MySpace became a wasteland, Facebook became Like Status Central and Twitter shrunk attention spans, people wrote less and less about their lives. Photos became mostly standalone, one-liners prevailed and writing of any length became virtually nonexistent. Today, my Facebook feed is almost entirely shared graphics. They can be entertaining, but they tell me next to nothing about the person sharing them. There's little creativity, even bad creativity, anymore. And with Facebook now promoting posts from random companies, even the graphics have been diluted with ads.

It's not all Facebook's fault. Smartphones, busier lives, more to do online, more places to do things online and off ... all that and more continue to fragment the culture and discourage casual art and writing.

More is not always better.

These days, when someone has gone the extra mile, it feels all that more special. So I guess there's that.

Seems the racism isn't the accident

Please, LL Cool J, tell us "Accidental Racist" was an accident.

Please clarify that, like what happened with that famously terrible anti-Islam movie, you went in the studio thinking it was something else and they chopped up your words and dubbed your voice on the most jaw-dropping parts. If it is all you, say we're misunderstanding it. Something.

I know that most movements with racism at the core trot out at least one minority to make it OK, but why did that have to be you, LL? They have people for that already — people who need the work far more than you do. You're an icon of hip-hop, and your acting isn't bad either.

I know you're a good guy, LL. I'm sure Brad Paisley is too. A collaboration against racism is all well and good — exciting, even.

But "Accidental Racist"? Let me tell you about being accidentally racist. I've written anti-racist columns and blogs that people have taken the wrong way. Racism is always a touchy topic, even more so when you take the chance to lampoon racists. As far as comedy and satire go, racists are about the most fertile ground there is. But there's a fine line. If you're not careful, or if your audience isn't clued in, what you say can backfire. And for someone devoted to destroying racism, that's one of the worst feelings in the world.

The inbred cousin of anti-racist satire is when someone tells a racist joke under the guise of, "How terrible is this joke?" Yes, it's so terrible that they told it anyway, and got the same laugh they'd have have gotten with no rationale. Those people will generally claim that they aren't racist either. And in the South especially, they may really think they aren't. But they are, to some degree, accidental racists.

I don't see much in the song lyrics that suggest any misunderstanding or satirical intent. Clever as your wordplay might be, it offers no counterbalance to Brad's dominant, yet put-upon, Southern boy.

I grew up white in the South. All my life I heard (and still hear) that racism was over and that it was blacks, not whites, who were the real racists for keeping the conflict alive. That blacks had their hand out for reparations for something that we had nothin' to do with. That white people had moved on and that it was past time for blacks to stop playing the race card. At some point I asked myself, "Have whites really moved on? Don't blacks still live with the lingering effects of institutional prejudice? Is it really the descendants of slaves who should apologize to people still pining for the Confederacy?" The way that many Southern whites still insist that opposition to the Confederate flag is rooted in "political correctness run amok" suggest to me that the racist mindset remains. 

Oh, I don't doubt that people revere the flag for reasons not related to slavery — but it's condescending at best to pretend that others don't see hatred in its fabric. Racist at worst.

"Accidental Racist" is the ultimate fantasy of a 21st-century good ol' boy — a culture clash between white and black, where the black man apologizes. Where seeing racism in the Confederate flag is the equivalent of judging a black man for his do-rag or gold chains (and where only the flag misunderstanding deserves an apology). In the dubious tradition of Ward Connerly, Clarence Thomas and Herman Cain, LL's presence turns what should have been a horrifying exercise into a justifiable jam for the good ol' boy. "It ain't racist! It's the truth!"

Not Cool, J. 

Or, for that matter, Brad.

We're all better than this, aren't we?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

When writer's block is for the best

Yesterday, I started writing a new Republican rap song to satirize the party's recent tone-deaf attempts to reach African-Americans.

After six lines, I can't get myself to write any further. 

The lyrics are so cheesy, condescending and misguided that I'm afraid someone might mistake them for my real feelings. But mostly, I'm certain that Rand Paul or one of his buddies will instantly render them obsolete with even more ham-handed racial awkwardness.

Either way, it hardly seems worth it.

The forced perspective of online reminiscing

For the past hour or so, I've been scrolling through my old Facebook notes. Remember those? Practically a defunct feature now, Facebook Notes were very popular among users in the site's earlier days. (MySpace, too, had both a blog and a bulletin feature, and I remember a lot more writing by a lot more friends in those days. I miss that. One of my friends has said that Facebook is basically Pinterest now. Funny how creativity has shrunken as social networks have multiplied.)

One note that particularly caught my eye was one I wrote about the new year in 2009. Turns out I posted it as a blog as well (often, they were standalone pieces). Though optimism abounds for the new year, you can read how happy I was to leave 2008 in the dust.

Hey, Ian of 2009, can you hear 2013 Ian? IT'S ALL RELATIVE.

The first thing I see is some random metrosexual being asked about his New Year's resolution. 

"I'm gonna try not to watch so many reality shows," he said. Either that, or "I'm gonna watch more reality shows." I can't recall exactly. But he followed it with a carefree giggle that suggested he could light his citronella candles with my medical bills. I pondered how awesome it must be to have your stuff so much together that this is the kind of resolution that immediately crops up when pressed on live national TV.

At the time, I was in the midst of several months of physical therapy prompted by a relapse of sciatica in my back. On top of each twice-weekly session costing up to $40 (thanks to my insurance carrier switching at the new year), I was paying off my $900 share of an MRI. That sucked at the time to me, but I could afford it. Now, I'd be happy just to have health insurance. My cares then seem as trivial to me now as the guy's on TV did to me then.

Is it me, or was 2008 a year that you not only want to leave in the rearview mirror, but yank off the mirror too just to make sure?

It's you, 2009 me. Nowadays, I look back fondly upon that era as a time when I had my stuff together. Yes, maybe I messed up with the beautiful and locally famous neighbor I met at our complex swimming pool, but at least I had the opportunity to mess up. I made sure I made the most of it! Also, a job, money, professional growth, bike trails and a YMCA membership. Those perks blunted a lot of pain.

Combined with increasing work pressures, most of us wonder just where the time goes.

Oh, the burden of gainful employment! Such a distraction from the quantity time unemployment gives you to dwell on all the things you should never think too long about.

But yes, time does have a way of going, eventually leading me to tougher pastures where being overworked was but a fond memory. For all the loneliness and misery I often felt in Missouri, I never took for granted that I had a steady job and a healthy, independent life. It couldn't — and didn't — last forever, but neither was it as bad as I sometimes made it out to be. It's all relative. I hope I'll always remember that.

And I hope one day I'm able to look back at 2012-2013 as the darkness before the dawn rather than, "Man, I thought I had it tough then!" It could happen. I sure as hell hope not.

OK, that's enough navel-gazing for one day.

It's called bias toward reality

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Death and Taxes: Mourning in America

Watching and reading reactions to Margaret Thatcher’s death reminded me of this heavily paraphrased exchange from about 10 years ago:

Me: “Ronald Reagan was a popular president, but he did a lot of things that weren’t so good.”

Her: “You can’t talk like that about Reagan! He’s sick and can’t defend himself.”

That’s right: I was a meanie for criticizing Reagan’s conscious and oft-trumpeted decisions as president, which was exactly the same thing as cracking jokes about Alzheimer’s in Nancy’s bedroom. It was apparently cheap of me to tarnish Reagan’s legacy then, unlike that time in 1987 when the president successfully justified his dismantling of the air traffic controllers’ union at my friend’s barbecue.

And this dialogue went down before he died. Afterward? Forget it.

Reagan’s 2004 death raised an interesting question that the death of Thatcher has resurrected: Is it OK not to mourn the death of a polarizing public figure?

Most people will say it’s an issue of time and place, and said time and place is not in the immediate aftermath of that figure’s death. That’s classy enough. But how many of us declared a moratorium on criticism when Osama bin Laden died? And who among us can’t think of living notorious figures we won’t miss when they kick it? Let’s be honest — we all want to be decent human beings in the face of mortality, but we all have our cap. Anyone who claims they don’t is in denial.

I believe it’s always appropriate to hold people accountable for their actions. Death may remind us that they’re people too, but one’s passing should never lead to a whitewash of their scorecard — especially when the people involved are political leaders. More than anyone else, they deserve to be judged by their deeds.

For my part, I neither mourn nor hail Thatcher’s passing. Being prime minister of the UK from 1979 to 1990, she was a blip in my burgeoning political conscience. I knew who she was as a child, but mostly I confused her name with Heather Locklear’s. (For example, at 9 I told my dad about a Frank and Ernest strip where Frank had a steamy dream about Locklear, but I said Thatcher’s name instead. I’m sure that left Dad perplexed.) Later I knew of her tenure as the Iron Lady and her legacy as an icon of conservative politics. Later still, I learned of numerous incidents that tarnished that iron.

So when I read that Thatcher’s death had touched off street celebrations in parts of England, I wasn’t particularly surprised (nor was I surprised at the praise from most corners). I would never dance in the street over anyone’s death, but I don’t blame people when they refuse to respect someone in death who didn’t respect them in life. To suggest that they must, is more insulting to the living than respectful to the dead.

Which brings me to Bobby Jindal. With his tax plan circling the drain, some are declaring his political career every bit as dead as Thatcher.

It’s a tempting diagnosis. Jindal rubbed many of us the wrong way long before he became governor — not just because of his unabashed neoconservatism, but also because he seemed to believe that the road to the White House was paved with scorched earth. He came off as that kid who fed the homeless to score points with the college admissions people, except for the part about feeding the homeless. And then Jindal got elected and proved he meant every word. The state I left in 2007 was far worse for the wear when I returned in 2011, and has continued to plummet exponentially since his baffling re-election that year. Even many of Jindal’s most ardent supporters can no longer justify the horrific cuts, the hostility toward public education and the naked greed behind his agenda. Once a favorite as the next Republican president, Jindal now polls lower than President Obama in Louisiana. That says far more about the fall of the former Golden Boy than it does about how highly Louisianans regard Obama.

Still, don’t draft the eulogy for Jindal’s career just yet. Even on life support, Candidate Jindal’s vitals remain: his incumbency, his intelligence, his roots, his fact that the GOP has no one else to parade in 2016. American memories are reliably short — even shorter when fear of a third Democratic term compels people to eagerly forgive and forget. Declaring Jindal finished is the fastest way to guarantee his resurrection. Those of us who have witnessed his decisions and their effects firsthand can never forget, nor let anyone else forget, just what a disaster he’s been for Louisiana.

But if time proves that this was indeed the end of the road for Jindal’s ambitions, I won’t be too upset. Just like Thatcher and Reagan before him, Jindal has cemented a polarizing legacy. We may mourn people when they die, but we shouldn’t mourn the death of bad politics.

Because you know someone will say it

Today's stabbing at a college in Cypress, Texas, has left at least 14 injured. I've heard no word of any deaths or catastrophic injuries, and I'm hoping it stays that way.

Regardless, I'm sure that there will soon be snarky commentary about how liberals are hypocrites for not wanting to ban knives (or pencils or whatever it turns out the assailant used in the stabbings) in the aftermath. After all, that's what those people say about guns after mass shootings!

Wrong. Again. On every level.

First off, most items can be used to stab, or turned into implements that stab. I could remove the circuit board from my laptop, break it in half and slash someone with the rough edge. That doesn't mean we should ban all laptops — or knives, utensils, pencils, etc. Unlike guns, all of those items serve a useful purpose outside of their potential lethality. If they were banned, any of an infinite amount of resources could take their place.

Second, very few people called to ban guns after the rash of mass shootings; the criticism was over accessibility. Should mentally disturbed people have access to implements whose sole purpose is to inflict violent, rapid death, and which have no civilian alternatives to cultivate such bloodshed?

Third, it's highly likely that most, if not all, of today's stabbing victims will live. Certainly there was no pile of torn-apart, dead bodies lying around campus, who had no chance. Similarly, the suspect is allegedly in custody — while it's possible that person could have stabbed themselves into suicide, such a move would require more forethought and commitment than swiftly pulling a trigger. Stabbing yourself requires overcoming your visceral urge not to plunge a knife in your heart. And that's pretty much what you'd have to do, too, to instantly die and avoid realizing you didn't want to do that after all. A bullet to the brain or heart isn't conducive to such reflection.

At least in this case, we're likely to learn what made the stabber go screwy. We almost never have that luxury with our deranged, dead gunmen.

Shootings and stabbings are barely comparable. They're not even apples and oranges — they're mushrooms and oranges. Keeping toxic mushrooms out of the wrong hands is important to keeping people alive. That effort shouldn't be compared to oranges, which at worst could choke someone to death or serve as an annoying projectile, but otherwise are vital fruit. Does that make sense?

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Reading much into Roger Ebert

"I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it." — Roger Ebert, saying how he really felt about North (1994)

So Roger Ebert's dead now. Physically, at least.

I don't think that fact has completely hit me yet. Perhaps it will the next time I get on Twitter and realize my feed's not quite as awesome as it's been for the past three years.

Ebert was easily in my top 20 list of living people I most wanted to meet. Not for the obvious reasons, though. As much as I enjoyed his movie reviews (a niche he will own forever) and enjoy watching / reading about / writing about / being in movies myself, I don't consider myself a cinephile.

It's not because of his outspoken liberal politics, though he and I would no doubt have preached to our respective choirs for days on end. 

It's also not because he wrote a book called Your Movie Sucks, but that's getting warmer.

It's because Roger Ebert was the kind of guy who would write a book with that title. He was the Howard Cosell of print journalism.

Cosell, like Ebert, was a rare breed of journalist. It was once said of Cosell that he wrote a column on the air. If he thought a boxing match was a charade or that a football referee made a terrible call, he'd say so, as it happened. Not because he wished to court controversy, but because it was the truth. Cosell was an old-school journalist, the kind who didn't care about toeing any corporate or company lines — he called it as he saw it, and his vision was sharp. He gave praise and compassion where they were due and hurt feelings where they deserved to be hurt. He unflinchingly addressed politics and other current events as they related to games and athletes, making sports relevant to everyone. And most of all, he was hugely entertaining in the process. That's why he's still very much in the public consciousness 18 years after his death and nearly 30 years after his final broadcast.

Ebert embodied that very same don't-give-a-crap attitude. Journalists are so often drilled to be neutral, objective and narrow — qualities necessary in many aspects of the craft. However, in recent years especially, this has led to blander copy even in entertainment and sports venues. Even writers who have more leeway to inject creativity and opinion into their writing exercise excessive caution, and not always for the noblest of reasons. This cautiousness bleeds into the rest of their output, such as social media (of which many journos have a love-hate relationship). What pundits we do have often go overboard, and lack serious journalistic training. It's almost as if we have one extreme or the other nowadays — the staid, rote journalist who squelches their personality entirely, or the four-alarm, professional opinion-monger. The middle ground is where our best journalism has historically emerged. Ebert, perhaps as a holdover from a freer era, continued to embody that spirit long after it became the exception in America's pages.

These days, journalists and editors debate furiously over where the media is headed in the age of the Internet and social sites. I submit that Ebert had it right — he brought tremendous expertise to his particular beat, writing informed (yet accessible) reviews, and was just himself online. He was simply an articulate human being, who saw the world as compelling a spectacle as anything on screen. He succeeded not because he reviewed movies, but because he reviewed life. And like Cosell, Ebert called it as he saw it. Every word he wrote was a conversation with us, a 24/7 dialogue that the loss of his jaw and the ability to speak never silenced. Above all, he was a personality — something painfully missing from so much writing today. As it turns out, the future of creative journalism is the man who, as of today, is part of its past.

I often struggle to articulate who my role models are, or the direction I want to take with my life. But when I look at Roger Ebert, that vision suddenly becomes clearer. I don't want to just be a distinctive voice; I want to be a better human being. Also, wittier on Twitter. 

R.I.P., Roger. May both of your thumbs point toward the heavens. (I know you would tell me that line sucks. It does.)

"Making out at the movies is wonderful." — Roger Ebert

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Sue Everhart watches dumb comedies

In yesterday's blog, I asked how marriage was natural in any sense. My question was inspired by Sue Everhart, chairwoman of the Georgia Republican Party, who said that it was "not natural" for same-sex couples to be married.

Everhart is also worried that granting benefits to same-sex couples would compel roommates and/or buddies to hitch up to share insurance

Well, not only is that fraud, but it's also the plot of I Love You, Man and an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, so that cat's been out of the bag.

Also, who's to say that hetero couples don't do exactly the same thing? I suspect it happens more than people think. And just like with quickie Vegas hitches, celebrity stunt marriages and reality-show Bridezillas, the bond through insurance has failed to cheapen the institution of holy matrimony. I guess only gay marriage could accomplish that, based on what Everhart and Co. tell me.

What Everhart fears isn't entirely imagined. In fact, it's something we should consider. Why would anyone willfully adopt the trappings of marriage with someone they don't love just for the insurance? The short answer is, because of the insurance. Many people who need it, don't have it. The reason for that is that access to decent insurance is often elusive to people — it requires money, which requires a job, and both can be hard to come by these days. Meanwhile, the risk of being sick always remains, along with the companion fear of being wiped out as a result. In light of that, I can fully understand why a handful of desperate people would consider marriage just for this purpose. That doesn't make it right, but how right is the alternative?

If Everhart really wanted to curb fraudulent marriages, she'd stop watching silly comedies and get to work on reforming health care. I'll be over here holding my breath.

Monday, April 01, 2013

A good question about matrimony

What is natural about any form of marriage?

I'm asking because in point 1 of this article, Georgia GOP leader Sue Everhart is quoted as saying, "it is not natural for two men or two women to be married."

Well, that's technically true, I suppose. There's nothing natural about proposing, announcing an engagement, purchasing artificially expensive rocks on rings, sending out invitations, establishing a gift registry, holding a wedding and reception, sharing legal rights and all the other trappings that come with the institution of matrimony ... when two men or two women are involved. But all of that is encoded in our primal DNA when it involves a man and a woman, obviously.

True, some species mate for life. OK. But how many of them have churches? Or courthouses?

Marriage is not natural. And that's perfectly fine. We have a lot of artificial, societal constructs. They serve a variety of purposes that make people happy and make life as a citizen more smooth. As such, it is an institution that should be open to any consenting adult couple who desires it and is free to enter into it.

To suggest that gays can't be married because it violates nature shows ignorance of both marriage and the prevalence of homosexuality across species. It is, in fact, as unnatural an argument as can be made.

Gaffes like these give racism a bad name

"Listen, Cavanaugh, it's not KITE, it's KIKE. K-I-K-E, kike. You know, you're too stupid to even be a good bigot." — Brian Schwartz, Porky's

This movie quote immediately sprang to mind when I read that Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) had used the term "wetbacks" to describe the cheap labor his dad employed on his farm. Even Carlos Mencia had to palm his face on that one.

"Wetback" is such an ancient slur for Mexican that I didn't hear it until I was 14, and only then as part of a George Carlin routine. And might I add I was raised in south Louisiana, where the racial-slur beer flows like Dumb and Dumber wine? That's serious stuff.

But even if the term wasn't the remnant of Joe Arpaio's father, it's still not cool. Don't today's bigots know that you couch the hatred? Today's siren Stormfront song is the dog whistle. No longer do you use direct epithets to describe minorities — you talk about "welfare queens" and "illegal immigrants" who "take our jobs" and from whom "we want our country back." You joke about tacos and monkeys, then insist that the jokes are something entirely different than racism. And of course, you abhor racism, even as you blame "the PC Police" for keeping you from saying what you want. Couch, then deny. That's how you do prejudice in the 21st century!

The saddest thing is, Young picked the worst possible way to make his point. All he had to say was that they used to have 50-60 laborers to pick tomatoes. It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. That last sentence wasn't even paraphrased! He said "people" one second after saying "wetbacks." One word change and his unfortunate racial tendencies could have remained under wraps. 

It's as if someone said, "Men make more money than broads for the same work." It practically takes effort to slip that in.

Too stupid.