Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Must Watch"

A year ago I was persuaded to aid the fund raising efforts of the local barbershop male chorus by going around as a member of a quartet that sold singing valentines to husbands, wives and significant others. I wrote about it in this space - "My Day as an Old Guy". They got their hooks in me again this year, and our singing duties expanded to parts of three days. My advice? Don't hire us unless your baby has a high tolerance for embarrassment or else she/he just REALLY likes that kind of music. I find it tolerable once or twice a year.

Sometime after cable TV became a common micro-luxury of American homes, we stopped talking in public about what we saw on the tube last night. In fact, most of us like to brag about how busy we are and therefore just don't watch much. Anyway, your chances of reviewing a specific telecast with another person are reduced considerably when you have two or three hundred options every hour.
I'm not going to lecture anyone about their choice of age-appropriate viewing. Are there things that should NEVER be seen? Probably, but let's leave that discussion to be led by someone else.
I will say that you are missing something of value if you don't try to see EVERY production of "Frontline", the PBS entry in the endangered category of investigative TV journalism.
I'll give you three examples of what I mean. Two or three years ago, they showed the operation of a small-town funeral home, run by a man who is also a poet. The employees were shown taking on their usual assigned tasks, the owner, a second generation funeral director, gave his observations having dealt with families in all kinds of situations, and some of them were shown, too. But the most memorable image was that of a little boy, just three, who had been born with a collection of physical problems that left him unable to experience much of life. His parents, a couple in their thirties, had known of the boy's approaching death for a long time. The mother was especially articulate in describing her experience. She was a rare TV character, not speaking for her own benefit, yet articulate, loving and even attractive in a way that virtuous people sometimes are, in an unselfconscious way. The program wasn't meant to change the world, but I found it compelling.
Better known would be the longer program entitled "Bush's War". In this one, extensive use is made of the "historical present" tense. You know - "Nero reaches for his instrument as the flames come into view." Still photos taken inside the White House are followed by the stories of those who had been there, or who knew what had transpired. The "Frontline" voice guy ( I don't know how else to describe him) leads us to some inevitable conclusions, none of them favorable to the Bush administration. I did generate some sympathy for Colin Powell, but I'll probably never feel Dick Cheney's pain. The guy really IS like Darth Vader.
Last week, the Frontline broadcast made the often-confusing events of last summer/fall's financial meltdown much easier to understand. Here was one picture after another of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a formidable looking man, a Wall Street veteran and champion for the "no regulation" school of business, with his brow furrowed and dark, gloomy shadows across his face as he realized that he was actually over his head. And there was scholarly Bob Bernanke, head of the Federal Reserve, looking for ways to legally do what everyone knew knew had to be done. The financial wounded and dying - Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, and even Merrill Lynch, were shown as things spun out of control, not ftom too much government regulsation, but from not ENOUGH of it. You can draw a straight line from that moment to our current business debacle.
I won't pound today's thesis any further. I now believe that if PBS had nothing to offer other than its children's programming and Frontline, that the PBS donation that they want to sqeeze out of you would still be money well spent. I recall when the NBC lineup of comedies were referred to as "must see TV". Frontline is "Must Watch".

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Land Mines

At the super hot (the temps, I mean) Australian Open Tennis Tournament, Serena Williams, America's sweetheart, wore both a blue dress and a yellow headband with a prominent Nike swoosh. I wonder if there will be any payment from Stockholm for resembling, as she did, the Swedish flag? Too bad she's on record saying her favorite city is...Oslo.

It was right to recognize the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, but I didn't know until this year that he was born on the exact same day as Charles Darwin. Is that interesting, or just trivial? Let me think that over.

I said in this space last year that the issues of governing as president are often different from those of the campaign. And that's true already this time around. With the possibility out there that things can change again quickly, here are the things on which we will, it seems, judge the new administration. Any of these could go wrong, hence the term "land mines".

Recessions come and go, and I don't claim to be an economist. But this one has more the look of an economic tsunami than simply an abnormally high tide. Obama can't be blamed for the wave, but the nation understandably watches carefully to see the effect of this round of economic
stimuli. The rates of unemployment and inflation, which the public understands better than many government-generated economic measures, will be key to consumer confidence. If they break the way the Democrats hope, no amount of opposition solidarity or poison labeling ("It's socialism!") will be able to take off a huge "W' from the presidential scoreboard - a win.

Most countries want on some level to be left alone to live in peace and give their citizens a chance to make good things happen on their own. Afghanistan may be the exception that proves the
rule. That country has been invaded scores of times, but NEVER successfully occupied over a long term. I think the average Afghan likes to go out the back door and squeeze off a few rounds at something moving every day before breakfast. You just DON'T want to be on the other side from them. I hope, as the administration beefs up the troop levels there, that the president has something to remind him of that fact on his shaving mirror. Gorbachev could tell him the whole story why the place is so treacherous.

And Pakistan might be even scarier. This isn't a pile of rubble we're talking about, but a country of over 100 million people, and they have at least one, probably more, nuclear weapons. Musharref's gone, but his successors haven't shown much ability yet, except at collecting their fair share of corruption-generated funds. Stable government hangs in the balance. Danger!

The final land mine lies in the other direction - the past. Not a few people signed on with Obama in order to see some kind of justice brought on to Bush, Cheney and the whole neocon crowd, especially political weasel Karl Rove. Deciding to ignore that vast stinking heap of deceit, partisanship and lies would cost Obama out of the very group he should want to hold on to - younger people. I myself am sickened by the prospect of simp[ly letting that group of oligargichal liars skate free as if it was just fine to turn the Constitution into birdcage liner. This, for the good of future Americans and today's youth, just cannot be allowed to stand.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Becoming "Local"

It's not a really big thing, but did you notice that when a couple of Obama nominees for Cabinet offices had to withdraw because of tax problems of varying severity, that the President did an unusual thing? He did the "A" word - "apologize". In the process he used the "M" word - "mistake", and even the "S" word - "sorry". Not to encourage errors in judgment, but these words, pointedly never used by Bush & Pals, came in the third week of the Obama presidency.

In this country, moving to new places has always been pretty common. I got to thinking that we made our big move here a full three and a half years ago. Sometimes I'm still surprised to wake up in California, but it's also true that we've adapted and learned some things after arriving. The difference between succeeding and not might be as simple as a thing you could call "becoming local", which really just means knowing things that only the locals know.
Some things are pretty obvious. Wardrobe, for example. Making the wrong wardrobe choice after moving from Arkansas to South Dakota could be fatal. People dress in a great variety here even though the temps don't really range far at all. It's just that people have differing standards in our typical mid 50's to mid 60's daytime highs. Some need an overcoat, hat, scarf and gloves. They stand in line at the supermarket next to someone in shorts. Both are comfortable. It took me awhile to understand that, and that going to a baseball game in the evening, for example, didn't mean it would stay warm through nine innings.
You have to know about the local news, the local radio and TV stations and their schedules, the local stores and where to go for everything from a haircut to a new transmission. You have to know which roads are straight and which are winding and treacherous. Things like geese overhead are common here, and are lovely, but I'm still kicking myself for not finding the way to see a dead 70-foot fin whale on an obscure beach - something inconceivable in Iowa.
And then there's people in all their varieties. Local native tribes and their histories, however bloody, local foreign minorities and their contributions, the entertainment scene, and, at least to me, the local athletic scene beyond just your kids. Can you name the teams and their nicknames? In Iowa it was the Hawkeyes, the Muskies and the Beavers. Utah has Beetdiggers and Cavemen. Here it's the Lumberjacks and Loggers who play against teams with names like the Gauchos. Throw in the women's teams and it can get pretty strange. Lady Knights? Rams? Peacocks? Oy.
You aren't local until you have people you can touch for babysitting, dinner dates and rides to the airport. You have to know about local employers and the epic sagas of past corporate empires of the area. Have you been to a funeral? Taken food to someone sick? Tended someone else's kids? Served a good local cause. cleaned up a local mess not of your own making in a public area? You have to know who can fill out a foursome competently and which of your friends can take some kidding, and which ones can't.
It's a matter, I think, of knowing what makes your new digs special, not that the old digs were so horrible. People will cut you some slack at first when all your stories are about the old place, but you don't want to be known as the guy who only talks about it. Then you're just a bore.
And the ultimate measure of "localness"? Fixing your funeral plans. I'm not that local - yet.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Winter Mix

Here are several things, some of which, as we shall see, having nothing to do with winter itself, but what happened during it.

First, I tried to watch the Super Bowl. Normally we watch little or no TV on Sunday, but the "sinister force" Al Haig referred to during his Nixon days sometimes flicks the set on. After awhile I realized something. What I was watching was actually a TV commercial fest with irregular football interruptions. I turned it off. Someone later said it was a close game, but the NFL has those every single week from August through January. Anybody know who won?

I recall the days when scholars and novelists walked the earth. That kind of died when people found ways to pass classes without actually doing the reading. Anyway, another heavyweight novelist, John Updike, died last week, joining Norman Mailer and Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the other side. Now we've got what they call "best selling authors", but almost no bigger-than-life novelists, probably because there are so many other easier ways to make ridiculous amounts of money, or at least there were. Maybe the novel will come back if the recession lasts long enough.

I was playing tennis with the guys today. From different directions a young man and woman both came near the courts, cursing at each other in the way people do on certain low-grade TV shows, only without the "beeps". This went on awhile, all during a game in which I served about 20 points. The woman of this pair was naturally easier to hear than the guy. She yelled the same two-word phrase at least a dozen times before they finally went their separate ways - "Restraining order!" I felt I could have used one myself.

I did a little informal wrap up of the year just past in regard to the family. Among our seven offspring and their families some years have been good for graduations, others for new babies. This one had a little of everything: one baby, one graduation, one (sigh) divorce, one marriage and a couple of career moves. But if anything stood out, it was the travel. Between them we had trips to England, the Netherlands, Italy, Puerto Rico and within shouting distance of both Mexico and Canada, along with a return trip from Baghdad. Two relocated to the same place, but from about 1200 and 2400 miles away, respectively. More is planned. Growing up I thought it was a big deal to drive the 20 miles "up" the Mississippi River, which actually was east, to Davenport. Now I can't think of a reason to go there at all.