Sunday, October 25, 2020

Vote

 Did I mention that you should vote? You really should vote. If you haven't voted already, you still can vote. There is early voting going on currently, so you can vote early, or you can wait until Election Day and vote then. Election Day is November 3, if you were going to save that vote, but don't hold onto your vote too long because not voting really isn't a good idea.

A very good friend of mine got me to vote for the first time when I was in college. I had already skipped a presidential race, and she noticed that for all the bellyaching I was doing about how things were. That didn't seem right to her. She correctly pointed out that I had a voice and I should use if for something besides complaining. As a matter of fact, she continued, it would give your bellyaching more credence if I was an active participant in the system for which I had such incredible disdain. 

Fast forward a few decades and I can proudly say that I have participated in every election since: local, midterm, presidential. I voted. And, if you've spent anytime in this corner of Al Gore's Internet, you may have noticed that I haven't stopped bellyaching either. 

It is pretty wonderful to see how many places I see that word being flashed around these days. Vote. Not bellyaching. It's on T-shirts. It's on badges, posters, stickers and public service announcements starring many of our favorite celebrities. Some of them are getting naked to make sure that you vote. I saw hastily scrawled graffiti on a wall. One word. You know what it was.

Vote.

This is the part where I tell you about how many people can vote, which is a lot, and how many actually do, which is not so much. It would be great if they were the same number? I have suggested here before that you should vote as if your life depended on it, because in this election that could turn out to be more than just hyperbole. Health care isn't something that just all of a sudden popped up. Climate change has been around for quite a while. We're going into our fourth century of systematic racial oppression here in the Untied States. There is something for everyone to vote for in this one. And while you're at it, you could go ahead and pick your favorite city council candidate or decide where your local tax dollars will go. Voting can be very empowering. 

And, let's face it, it can also be a bit of a letdown. I voted for Michael Dukakis. I voted for the guy who invented the Internet. But I also voted for bond measures to help fund our school district. Voting can be a real mixed bag, but it's still better than not having a bag at all.

Vote. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Long Playing

 The apocryphal tale goes something like this: Wandering around the Pearl Street Mall in a daze, I was seeking comfort in something familiar. Just days before, our most special and amusing friend on the planet had died, and those of us who knew him were seeking solace if not meaning. I found mine, as I had so many times before, in a record store. 

There it was, leaning against the railroad ties that served as the new releases section at Rocky Mountain Records and Tapes. The new album from Oingo Boingo: Dead Man's Party. I didn't pick it up right away. I stared at the cover art, with its skeletons cavorting about in celebration of Dia de Los Muertos. When I finally held it in my hands, I flipped it over to inspect the track listing. There was "Just Another Day," the title tune, "Heard Somebody Cry," "No One Lives Forever," and that was side one. I bought it and rushed back to the apartment that I had been so anxious to escape to listen to this music that had obviously been sent to us as a message from beyond. 

We wore that record out. It spoke to us in our pain and confusion. How could our roommate and partner in crime be gone? No one lives forever. What could we do to celebrate his memory? Halloween was just a few days away, why not a Dead Man's Party? Like the man said, 

No one beats him at his game
For very long but just the same
Who cares there's no place safe to hide
Nowhere to run no time to cry
So celebrate why you still can
Cause any second it may end
And when it's all been said and done
Better that you had some fun
Instead of hiding in a shell
Why make your life a living hell?
Have a toast, down the cup
Drink to bones that turn to dust

So we lived. And we partied. And we used those songs to keep us moving in the darkness. 

Somewhere in there, we all got old. But that tragedy of losing a friend in our twenties still stings. Forever young. Forever the funniest guy in the room. Forever lost. Forever. Thirty-five years into that forever, another record came out to remind us that there is joy in memories. Bruce Springsteen released a meditation on love and loss. 

Faded pictures in an old scrapbook
Faded pictures that somebody took
When you were hard and young and proud
Back against the wall running raw and loud

Song titles like "Last Man Standing," "Ghosts" and "Song For Orphans" remind me of the time when I was sure that music was being made for us survivors. Bruce is seventy years old. He's lost friends and bandmates along the way. He wrote this album of songs to remind us all that there is still music to be made. And heard. And savored. 

Because as the road continues to roll out in front of us, we can't avoid looking back. At those we left behind. And those who are to our left and right, still stumbling into that darkness, but glad to know we don't have to go there alone. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

Let X=X

 For quite some time, the phrase "fake news" has been front and center in the discussion of events that affect us all. This is troubling, since news is sort of by definition what is happening now, and the afterglow of that is history. What we have been discovering on our own what Plato figured out more than two thousand years ago: there are truths to be discovered and that knowledge is possible. Truth is not, as the Sophists thought, relative. Instead, it is objective. Truth is that which our reason, used rightly, apprehends. Which is a lot of high talking to impress you all that I did, in fact, take a philosophy class in college.

And I believe that truth is objective. Though there is a line from Jesus Christ Superstar that rings in my head as I writ that. The scene in which Pilate is questioning Jesus, he wonders, "We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?" And this is the moment where I pivot only slightly to compare the current political climate to that of ancient Rome. If Joe Biden gets elected, the "president" says, he'll listen to scientists. Joe Biden replied as one might hope a sane person would. "Yes."

How about that? After all these years of philosophical and scientific exploration, we might begin to take some of it into account. I referenced the political climate earlier, but it would be nice to imagine a planet on which the climate of that planet was not a source of debate. It is what it is, and the notion that human beings have an impact on their environment is no longer a talking point. What remains to be discussed is how we can stop simply using up what we have and hoping for some sort of free pass or divine intervention. Which may be why I invoked the Son of God in that last paragraph. 

Or maybe we should stop wishing for miracles and start applying math. When someone points a camera at something and points out the cracks maybe we should stop blaming the poor lighting. When someone puts a microphone in front of you and your voice goes through all those magic wires to become part of a record of what you were saying, it is proof of what was coming out of your mouth at that time. This is what news should be. Yes, I understand that human beings are involved in all this camera pointing and microphone placing, and as such there will be judgments made about when and where to turn on those machines. But if you make those same faces and noises enough, it's probably fair to start to believe that they establish a trend. Windmills don't actually make noise that cause cancer. People with advanced medical degrees carry more information around in their heads about infectious diseases than game show hosts. Two plus two does in fact equal four, no matter who your accountant is. 

I look forward to a day, and I hope it comes soon, when knowledge is possible again, and truth is just a little more objective. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Horror Show

 For those of you who read the story about a teacher being beheaded, I want to put your mind at ease: It was not me. The teacher in that story was from France. I am still a teacher, but I do not work in France. I work in Oakland, California. 

Which may take some of the ugly sting out of the story for you, but it still rings in my ears, nearly a week later. History teacher Samuel Paty was murdered by a teenager with "possible ties to Islamic extremism." The quotation marks are there to point out the diligent police work that must have been involved in coming to this conclusion. Mister Paty was killed because he showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his students. The "suspect," Abdoulakh A, is an eighteen-year-old man born in Moscow of Chechen origin. He came to France with refugee status as a boy and had no apparent connection to the school or Mister Paty. Except that he ended up cutting his head off. And then taking a picture of it with his cell phone. Which may be the ugliest redefinition of intimacy that I can imagine. TWitnesses are said to have heard the "suspect" shout "Allahu Akbar," or "God is Greatest." and then posted photos of the victim to a Twitter account, along with insults to Mr Macron and French "infidels" and "dogs."

You may recall back in 2015 when the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were shot up by two al-Qaeda associated gunmen, killing twelve and injuring another eleven. Samuel Paty showed the cartoons as part of a lesson on free speech that used the Charlie Hebdo massacre as an example. Mister Paty undertook this lesson plan even as the trial for fourteen individuals associated with that crime began in Paris. He did suggest that Muslim students to look away if they thought they might be offended.

Apparently, this did not have the effect Mister Paty had hoped for, otherwise his head might still be connected to his body. 

Please understand that I am horrified by this incident, but at the same moment I am reminded of the words of my former colleague and card-carrying communist who once reminded me that "teaching is a political act," echoing educator Paulo Freire's assertion that no pedagogy is neutral. I wonder how a lesson in an American high school that featured cartoons of Jesus Christ might be received in this climate which seems to encourage extremist plots sprung from fear and outrage. 

Perhaps not so coincidentally I received an email reminder from the school district for whom I work that there are guidelines for political activity for its staff. The memo suggests that I  "take a moment to familiarize yourself with the revised Guidelines if you might want to engage in any political activities in the lead up to Election Day."

I suppose I should be relieved that there is not, as yet, a section regarding sharing cartoons of prophets. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

What's The Big Idea?

 My wife and I have watched, or binged as the kids say, the NBC television series The Good Place. A couple tings about this saturation viewing. First of all, these days of shelter in place have provided opportunities that might not otherwise have existed to park on the couch and take in all that TV goodness. Secondly a network sitcom, once the commercial breaks have been excised, run about twenty-two minutes. You can cram in three episodes in just over an hour. And you can forget about those cliffhangers. Just keep on keeping on. It does help if the show is captivating enough to keep all that keeping on worthwhile.

The Good Place is that. Or was, since it's now a part of broadcasting history. The fourth and final season has been placed in the time capsule of streaming services and now the discussion can begin about where it stacks up in the sit com pantheon. Of course, greatness in a category that includes such titles as Joanie Loves Chachi and My Mother The Car does not seem like that big a feat. What makes The Good Place a diversion from the dominant paradigm of your standard prime time dreck is the ideas it chose to wrestle with over the course of its run. Without giving too much away, if you haven't seen any of it, the story concerns the afterlife, good and evil and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. And it's funny stuff.

But I couldn't help but wonder what was on the cutting room floor. What must have gone on in the writer's room? I know from history and anecdotal experience with the process of making movies and TV that what we end up seeing at the end of the process is just a sliver of all the creativity that happens from that moment of inspiration to the filtered and watered down version that becomes mass media. Finding ways to dance on the edge of cleverness and big ideas while maintaining sponsorship from corporate America is a tricky vocation, because it is a business after all. Show business. And if somewhere along the line you end up making our audience contemplate their very existence, then kudos to you. 

Because inevitably the meetings that take place in anticipation of the production of popular entertainment are more interesting than the popular entertainment itself. All of the discussion and debate that went into making a situation comedy about life and death and how we treat one another would be, I think, very interesting to watch. Maybe not four seasons worth, but at least twenty-two minutes worth. 


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Radio Silence

 I was a mile away from my house, running up a hill, when the helpful voice whispered in my ear: "Please recharge your headset." It was the obsequious droid that was letting me know that I had no more seconds to wait before the music I was listening to turned to silence. Well, not exactly silence. I was suddenly aware of the pitter patter of my little feet on the sidewalk, muffled by the rubber buds that were still stuffed unnecessarily in my ears. 

Decision time: Should I turn around and cut this exercise period short for the sake of being distracted/entertained as I sweat? Or should I press on? I had already tacitly committed to running seven miles that morning, and turning around at that point would give me a grand total of two. Hardly the workout I was anticipating. So I kept going. Up the hill, suddenly very aware of the rhythm of my steps. I thought of a metronome. I imagined that keeping a steady beat would give me a steady pace, which is something I don't always achieve when I have all those different tempos pouring in to my head. All those words. All those melodies. The playlist I had compiled was engineered to bring a certain spring to my step. 

Now those tunes were gone, and I thought of my therapist from way back when. She suggested to me that I didn't always have to drown out the world with music. She advised me, not always but from time to time, to run without headphones. To listen to the world around me. Shortly after that, as I crested another hill, I came upon two neighbors discussing the fate of the house across the street from them. "Yeah, he's not really in Hawaii. He's in debt up to his ears. She's just camping out there."

Now I wanted to stop for a completely different reason. I wanted in on the conversation. Who was she and was anybody going to call the authorities and was there a meth lab involved? But I kept moving. 

About a mile away from that dialogue, I overheard a mother yelling at her daughter from the front porch, "You're not going to wear that outside, are you?" If I stopped there, I might take in a little teenage angst. But I kept moving.

As I ran, I heard motors roar and purr and belch on street beside me. I heard the town start to wake up. Yards were watered in anticipation of another hot day. Children screamed from living rooms because sometimes that happens too. 

And all the while I kept that metronome ticking. When I made it home, I busied myself about the yard. Trees to water, roses to tend. I listened to birds singing and squirrels chasing one another in the trees. All of this sound made me feel closer to my world. Which was fine.

Then I went inside and charged my headphones. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Tab Hunter

 I used to do a bit about a girl at a party freaking out because she was sure that she had been given a regular Coke instead of a Tab. I preface this by saying I "used to" because there just aren't that many people left in the world who know what Tab is. I do. I grew up with Tab. I was only a year old when the first bright pink cans of that diet cola came rolling off the line. 

Yes, Tab came in bottles as well, but that's not how it will be remembered. It was that daring packaging veer away from the parent company Coca Cola red that made it distinct. The can that screamed "sugar free! sugar free!" before you ever got to the name of the soda. This was a game changer. A huge deal because a can of Tab would only set you back one calorie. That's right. Just one. You would expend more energy yanking the tab off of your Tab than you would gain by drinking it. Or something like that. It was the beginning of what we now know as diet soda. Like many Coke products, there were plenty of permutations for the original formula: fruit flavors, ginger ale, root beer, and the inevitable caffeine free version. All of which were based on the idea that you could still have your pop and drink it too if you were trying to lose weight. Which a lot of people wanted to do in the mid to late sixties. And seventies.. And into the eighties. 

Except that there was that rat problem. Not that rats were involved in the actual making of the beverage, but the fact that they got bladder cancer after drinking Tab gave the pink can a tarnished image. It was saccharine that ruined those rats' lives. And it was feared that it would ruin the bladders and lives of humans too, so rather than banning it, the FDA insisted that Coke put a label on every can, bottle and two liter jug: "Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals." And this was on top of the can being pink. 

As it turned out, the saccharin that was in Tab didn't ruin the bladders of humans, but this didn't necessarily save it from the recycling bin of history. In 1982, Coke began brewing Diet Coke, presumably to compete with themselves. And that faint heartbeat heard in Tabland began to diminish still further. It was one more slot on the fountain an any fast food joint, or button on any Coke machine that didn't need to be there if the world wanted Diet Coke. Instead of Tab? In a pink can? 

Please.

Well, nearly sixty years later, the final nail in Tab's coffin is being hammered into the coffin of Coca Cola's first diet drink. The soft drink Godzilla is killing of its "zombie brands," including Odwalla juice, which will make my wife tear up. And Tab. Which will make anorexic boys and girls around the world panic. Or maybe it would have a few decades ago. Now that Coke has its own brand water, there's no reason not to streamline things as much as possible. To be clear, Tab had a pretty good run. Sixty years is about fifty-nine years and six months longer than New Coke lasted. 

A toast to Tab, artificially flavored brown water never had it so good.