Thursday, December 31, 2009

Here's to the Uh-ohs

New Year’s Eve. A time to think about the past year and all the things that happened, and all your plans for the next year, and Ohio State’s chances of winning the Rose Bowl, and why New Year’s Eve TV programming has sucked ever since Guy Lombardo’s orchestra disbanded, and….

Enough. Why do we even celebrate the New Year when we do? It’s of no astronomical significance (the winter solstice is already past). My research indicates that it marks the installation of two Roman consuls in 153 B.C. Such is the reason why millions of people get plastered. Let’s hear it for those Roman consuls!

Still, I guess we have to mark the time somehow and why not now? This year is special because it marks (at least in the public eye) the end of a decade. (And, yes, I know it’s technically not a new decade until next year. Spare me your pedantry.) A decade with no name. Nobody came up with a really good name for this decade, a la “the ‘50s, the ‘60s,” etc. “The Aughts” isn’t bad. I hate “The Noughties.” It sounds like something they sell at Victoria’s Secret. And besides, the decade wasn’t especially naughty. Remember that an exposed breast nearly caused the Apocalypse at the Super Bowl not so long ago.

This decade’s lack of a name is appropriate, because there’s not much about this decade that’s memorable, except 9/11 and the election of President Obama. Seriously. Every other decade had some things that defined it. The ‘50s gave us rock ‘n roll. The ‘60s gave us antiwar protests. The ‘70s gave us really ugly clothes. The ‘00s (would you say that “uh-ohs”?) gave us…what? An increase in blogs and social networking. That’s about all you can say for it. “Seinfeld” was a ‘90s TV show, but you could call the Uh-ohs “The Seinfeld Decade”—because it was a decade about nothing.

Not that it was bad for me on a personal level. During the Uh-ohs (I like that name better already), I made a lot of new friends through Mensa, met my wonderful wife, moved to a new city and found a great new life. The Uh-ohs left me far better than they found me. Maybe that’s why it seems like a decade about nothing to me. Maybe I’m just too busy to immerse myself in pop culture as much as I used to.

Perhaps the decade is just too recent for us to step back and define it. At the end of the ‘80s, I couldn’t find anything that stood out in my mind about the decade except Reagan, greed, and the ubiquitous presence of Phil Collins on the radio. But in retrospect, it has its own nostalgic niche—mainly among people who are too young to actually remember it.

So maybe it will be up to the pop culture historians 10 or 20 years hence to look back at the Uh-ohs and name the things that will give it a name. In the meantime, let’s have the best 2010 we can and give ourselves something that we can feel truly nostalgic about someday.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

When the bad guy wins

In our culture, it is accepted as an article of faith that good triumphs in the end. It may take years, but good always wins.

It is this meme, mantra, or whatever you want to call it, that keeps us getting out of bed day after day, working meaningless jobs, dealing with idiots, and experiencing sporadic happiness—the idea that, no matter how badly you’ve been screwed, you’ll be on top someday.

Then there are those times when it becomes apparent that the good guy’s not going to win this time around.

This entry is about one of those times.

When I was in high school, an English teacher took a great interest in my writing, and I became infected with the idea that I could make a living as a writer. Several years later, I found myself writing for a community newspaper. The editor of that paper seemed like a decent guy. He was a strong writer and appeared to know the ins and outs of journalism. I saw him as a mentor, even a friend.

After about a year at the paper, it became clear to me that he was neither. On several occasions, suggestions he made to me got me in trouble with co-workers, and this appeared to be a pattern with other people at the paper, too. Things got worse when the paper was purchased by a chain and he was named managing editor. The paper’s format was tightened, and anything that deviated from that format was severely punished. I learned the hard way that the press is only truly free if you own it.

One day, I had a performance review, where I was confronted with every article I’d written over the past three years that this guy didn’t like. Soon after that, he fired me.

That should be the end of the story. I had grown to hate the job anyway. Sometimes I think I should thank him for taking away my right to take shit off of soccer moms for 15 grand a year. I’m in a different line of work now, and my life has gotten better. But I never completely gave up the dream of being a writer.

One day, I Googled his name and couldn’t believe what I found. He has become a fairly well respected, award winning writer of mysteries. He hasn’t made the best-seller list, to my knowledge, but I can’t seem to find anything bad about his writing online, either. My blood boils with every five-star review of his novels I read on

It wasn’t enough for him to kill one of my dreams. He had to kill—or at least beat me to—another.

Our culture tells us that the way I feel is somehow evil—that it’s bad to feel bitter about someone else’s success.

Then again, our culture also tells us that good always wins.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

An Obama presidency post-mortem

You read that right. This entry is a post-mortem of the Obama presidency.

He will still be in office for at least three more years and could be re-elected, but in an important way, his presidency ended earlier this week when he announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

What has ended is any idea that his presidency will lead to radical change. Many people have hoped—or feared—that Obama’s election would lead to some sort of revolution, although the substance of that revolution differed with each person you asked.

I voted for him. My wife and I cried at 11 p.m. on election night when he was declared the winner. But looking back, I think that all the people who thought that his election would lead to truly drastic changes in this country weren’t looking at his resume close enough. Revolutionaries aren’t given the opportunity to edit the Harvard Law Review. Hell, revolutionaries aren’t allowed within 300 feet of the Harvard campus!

Obama may be sincere about change, but he is also a political careerist, like many others in Washington. He has spent most of his life being schooled in, among other things, the art of compromise, and he knows that alienating too many people would be damaging to the career that he has devoted his life to developing.

In the (allegedly good) old days, politics was a sideline for most of the people involved in it. Look at this list of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Do you see anyone whose occupation is listed as “politician”? Many lawyers, but, as in our time, most lawyers are not politicians. People got into politics because they cared about the way the government was being run, but they did not see politics as the primary way to feed themselves.

Somewhere along the way, the laws became more sophisticated and harder for the average person to understand. The complexity required that public office become a full time job.

Lincoln’s proverbial one-room schoolhouse became no longer adequate to train a President. Neither were the public schools and state universities that do all right by most people. College programs became devoted to public policy and began to turn out a new breed of student princes, such as Obama, as skilled at the political game as a brain surgeon. While most of them are attorneys, few have any experience in an area of law that is not related to politics.

What does this have to do with sending troops to Afghanistan? Obama has made this decision after careful consulting with his military advisers. He is not about to make a decision that will step on the wrong toes. If he alienates too many important people, the career that has become his life will be over. Seriously—if he weren’t a politician, what would he do? Write people’s wills? Work for Edgar Snyder?

It is not a partisan problem. There are just as many political careerists on the Republican side. While it’s good that politicians have been well trained in the nuances of creating laws, something has also been lost. There is a certain hesitancy to be decisive if it means being unpopular.

When President Truman fired the popular General MacArthur at the height of the Korean War, it was political suicide. While Truman has been resurrected as a folk hero, people forget that he left office with some of the lowest approval ratings in history. Similarly, when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legend has it that he told an aide, “We [the Democratic Party] have lost the South for a generation.” And they did. In both cases, Presidents weren’t afraid to stick their necks out to do something that they thought was right, even if they knew it would hurt their careers. It’s hard to see anybody in Washington being that brave today.

Barring the faux-Mayan apocalypse that some people believe in (which wouldn’t happen until after Election Day, anyhow), I will vote for Obama again in 2012, mainly because I think the balance on the Supreme Court is too precarious to allow a right-wing President to appoint conservative judges to that body. But that’s another blog entry.

Meet the new boss. Not quite the same as the old boss, but maybe not different enough to really matter. It may not be change we can believe in, but it may be the only type of change that’s believable.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The most worthless list on the web

The web is a hotbed of useless information, but I've found one common "news" item that is actually more useless than any blog. Even this one.

Everyday you will see a common news item on the Yahoo! home page, and many other well-known home pages. The link will be in your face the moment you log on, along with the latest pretty, rich white girl who went missing and the latest stupid thing Sarah Palin said.

The title is always the same. It will be something like "The 10 Hottest Jobs in America." Sometimes there will be a different spin on it, such as "The 10 Hottest Jobs That Don't Require a College Degree." I really sleep better at night knowing that air traffic controllers don't have to go to college.

The list will have jobs that are in demand, well paid, or both, during the hour the list was written. The list is also worthless to anyone who's really serious about a career.

These lists are all the same, so here's a Reader's Digest condensed version of them:

*Four of these careers will be in health care--nursing, medical technology, maybe some sub-specialty that requires an M.D. Which is just fine, if you don't mind having people's lives in your hands. Those of us who can barely handle our own lives need to look elsewhere.

*Three will be in finance. They will be hot because of the economic conditions, whatever they may be--investment banking when times are good, bankruptcy experts when times are, well, now. Since the demand for these jobs varies with the times--and anybody who's been out in the real world for a few years knows how fast the economy changes--it makes little sense to hitch your wagon to one of these stars.

*Two will be in IT, but they will be so specialized that only a handful of supergeeks will qualify for them. That MIS degree from your local business school won't help you here.

*Then there's the "cute" career--one that's on the list for a laugh. Pet psychologist, blackjack dealer, the funnier the better. They might even get a quote from the one person who makes six figures in such a field. They don't tell you that these careers aren't as fun, or as lucrative, as this one person's experience suggests. That would ruin the joke.

Why are these lists useless? Simple. Everybody is reading them. People read this stuff, rush headlong into these "hot" jobs and create a glut on the market. Then, when the economy takes a turn, they're stuck in a career with no opportunities for advancement--if they have a job at all.

You could argue that anybody who goes into one of these "hot" careers looking for a shortcut to easy money gets what they deserve--and you'd be right. But isn't it also irresponsible for the media to encourage such thinking?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Haunted by the "S from Hell"

Jamie and I were walking through Storybook Forest at Idlewild recently when we started talking about how some people were really freaked out by clowns when they were little. I never understood this fear. I always found clowns to be mildly amusing, nothing more.

But then I started thinking about some of the irrational things that scared me as a child. While clowns may not have scared me, I had more than my share of irrational childhood fears—the most absurd of which was a fear of certain TV production logos.

My mom would tell you that I didn’t watch much TV as a kid. It would be more accurate to say that I didn’t actively watch much TV. I remember the TV being on quite a bit, mainly as background noise while I was reading, writing or playing games.

Most TV shows have production logos on their closing credits, which are designed to draw attention to a company’s handiwork at a moment when many viewers might be headed for the bathroom or drifting off to sleep. These logos tend to be friendlier today, but in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they often featured stark imagery and loud fanfares that had the side effect of scaring small children.

Why I found these logos scary, I don’t know. I think it had more to do with their sound than their images. When I watch them with the sound off, the emotional impact is nil. My mind tends to remember sounds, though. I always seem to have a song stuck in my head. Now imagine that you’re five and the sound that’s stuck in your head as you’re trying to sleep is the Mark VII Limited hammer. You’re in for a long night.

But I wasn’t alone. Google “Scary TV logos” and you’ll find websites dedicated to this phenomenon. Certain logos have become so infamous that they have earned nicknames. There’s the “S from Hell,” the “V of Doom,” and “Closet Killer,” just to name a few.

So for my Halloween blog entry, I’d like to revisit some of my...uh...favorites.

An honorable mention should go to the Rankin Bass logo.

Rankin Bass was the company responsible for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and many other holiday claymation specials. The graphics on this logo are not especially scary, but the music is what makes it creepy. It throws a chord at you that is obviously leading up to something more, but it TAKES SO DAMN LONG TO RESOLVE! My definition of musical hell is having that chord hanging in your head forever.

Third place goes to the early ‘70s Paramount logo.

The fanfare was written by soundtrack legend Lalo Schifrin, best known for the theme from “Mission: Impossible.” He named it “Closet Killer,” which is appropriate. I once scared the crap out of myself when I was little by jumping in front of a full-length mirror in time with the climactic note (the one where they zoom in on the blue mountain). And what’s with the graphics here? I always thought that rectangle looked like a toothpaste box. (You’ll always get the yellow out when you brush your teeth with Paramount?)

In second place—the whole Mark VII Limited/Universal conglomeration.

Jack Webb must have really hated little kids. I had a strange fascination with his no-nonsense action dramas as a child (“Adam-12,” “Dragnet” and “Emergency!”). I especially remember watching reruns of “Dragnet” at my grandma’s house during the early days of cable—and being treated to this double whammy just before I went to bed.

The Mark VII Limited hammer is one of the few logos which is visually scary, in addition to the sound (does anything say “Something scary’s about to happen” like a tympani?). I remember looking at those big, dirty hands (which, according to some sources, are Webb’s) and wondering what they were going to do to me. And it was followed by a Universal fanfare that sounded like the soundtrack for the end of the world.

Is that the scariest possible end to a TV show? Hell, it isn’t even Mark VII Limited’s scariest logo! In 1971, Webb was taken over by the same demon that made everything in America either avocado green or sunset gold around that time. So out went the hammer, and in came this:

Not only is it one of the ugliest logos in history (flat gold lettering on burnt orange?), but the background music could have been titled “The House Is on Fire!” After three years of picturing flames consuming my house whenever this monstrosity came on, Webb went back to the hammer, and I was actually relieved.

And then there’s number one—the one, the only, “S from Hell.”

The Screen Gems logo was an early attempt at electronic music, which may be the reason why it’s so scary. There’s just something about that opening drone that still sends a chill up my spine, even today. Perhaps it was the contrast with the show I just watched (I always remembered this logo from lightweight fare—“I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Monkees” and “Bewitched”), but this logo just about defines late ’60-early ‘70s TV creepiness.

At least as far as TV logos go, that is. I could also write a blog entry on scary TV public service announcements, but fewer of them are available on YouTube. Maybe next Halloween.

Until then, have a blessed Samhain. And watch out for the “S from Hell.”

Monday, October 5, 2009

That’s what makes horse racing—and Facebook

If I have learned nothing else by getting sucked into the Facebook maelstrom, I’ve gained a measure of tolerance.

As I write this, I have 291 Facebook friends, a quite diverse lot. With a few exceptions (some family, a few members of the Pittsburgh pagan community, a karaoke DJ, a few former co-workers and one current co-worker—and why can’t I hear the word “co-worker” without thinking of Pat from SNL?), they belong to one of three groups: high school, college and Mensa.

The network of people from high school has been stronger than I thought it might be. A few people that I knew well had the tendency to friend everyone they knew, and the friends-of-friends mushroomed into a full-blown class reunion. Some of them have pretty interesting stories. There are no clichés—the class wallflower didn’t become a movie star, and the class stoner didn’t become a millionaire—but many of them have become more real to me than they were when we were in school (which probably says more about me than it does about them).

Then there are the people from college. I’m surprised that few people from my college in general have come my way, but my fraternity has a strong presence on FB. While most of the Pi Siggers on FB are younger than I, hearing from any of them brings back a lot of (mostly) happy memories.

And then there are the people from Mensa, whom I am more likely to keep in touch with in the everyday world. Their names tell the story of my life over the last 10 years or so, and continue to.

It thrills me to see these groups intersect—to see my wife respond to a college friend’s comment about music, or to see a high school friend talk politics with a Mensan. As small as it may seem, I feel as if I’ve made some sort of difference.

At the same time, I have learned to tread lightly, especially in these volatile political times. I have found that many FB friends disagree with me on The Big Two—religion and politics. While my college and Mensa friends are all over the map, the high school friends, with some exceptions, tend to be more politically conservative, and more strongly Christian, than the other two groups. I do not have a problem with this as long as people keep things civil. I’m from the Rodney King School of Facebook—why can’t we all get along?

One of my recent posts illustrates what I’m talking about. There was a poll asking who the best President of the last 50 years was. I voted for Clinton—although I should note that being the best President of the last 50 years is sort of like winning the fifth race at Beulah Park.

There was a high school friend who agreed with me, as well as a Mensan. Another Mensan objected to what he saw as abuses of power by Clinton. Then another high school alum objected to the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. It could have been a sticky situation (the Facebook thread, I mean), but I said nothing. I wasn’t looking for an argument—I just voted in some stupid poll. At one point, I felt as if I had started a bar fight and walked away. But it turned out for the best, and it made for some interesting conversation. And the high school Clinton fan wound up adding the Mensans as FB friends.

It feels pretty cool to bring people together when you don’t live in the same state.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The dream is over, what can I say?

I have heard it said that, if you have a hero, look again--you have diminished yourself in some way.

I was reminded of that quote last night as I finished John, the biography by Cynthia Lennon, John's first wife.

You could not have been a small child in the late '60s and early '70s--with four teenagers in the house--without becoming a Beatles fan. So it was with me. I recognized, even then, that there was something special about this band and how they covered so much ground in less than a decade. As I came of age, they became my heroes, even though the dirt on them wasn't quite hidden. I will always remember the morning I woke up and heard the news on the radio that John Lennon had been killed. I don't think there was anybody else in my school who was quite as affected by his death as I was.

I dismissed Albert Goldman's negative Lennon bio as garbage, even though I never read it and do not plan to. I have held to the romanticized ideas about the Beatles, especially John--the social activist who poured out his soul in his music.

It's obvious that any biography written by an ex-wife is going to be biased. At the same time, John shows another side of Lennon that you won't get from any Yoko-approved hagiography.

Things started out fairly well--boy meets girl in art school, boy travels to Hamburg with his band but keeps in touch, boy and girl sneak around for trysts when they can, boy gets girl pregnant while the band is on its way to superstardom, but appears ready to become a devoted husband and father. At the same time, there were flashes of jealousy and abuse, which Cynthia excused as stemming from John's abandonment by his father and the death of his mother.

Cynthia's inside view of Beatlemania was thrilling, but things began to unravel when John started using LSD, and came crashing down when he met ::sinister music:: YOKO ONO!

I have never held as much bile toward Yoko as many other Beatles fans. It's silly to singlehandedly blame her for the Beatles' breakup, as all four were going in different directions. Sure, her aesthetic sense is weird, but so what? John and Yoko always seemed like the quintessential rock 'n roll romance.

John shows the relationship as one-sided and dysfunctional. Again, you have to consider the source, but I've seen this view backed up by other sources as well. John's nickname for Yoko--"Mother"--says a lot.

The person who I felt the worst for in this book was Julian Lennon, who, in turn, wound up being abandoned by John and did not see him for several years. Feuds over money and visitation are recounted in painful detail. The most poignant quote in the book came from Julian as a child: "Why does Daddy tell people to love each other when he doesn't love me?"

John is slanted, but it represents a human reality of an artist who, I'm sure, was himself annoyed at (and ultimately died because of) his canonization. I imagine he's somewhere saying, "Well, Cyn, you got me."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

America has been given a collective lobotomy

I cannot believe the hysteria that has overtaken America.

Less than a year after sending Barack Obama to the White House (and, yes, it was the American people that put him there, not ACORN), the American people are now intent on destroying him.

Obama is now unable to give an 18-minute address to high school kids without causing a major controversy. People are actually keeping their kids home rather than let them be infected by such socialist notions as working hard and staying in school.

This is typical:

"Thinking about my kids in school having to listen to that just really upsets me," suburban Colorado mother Shanneen Barron told CNN Denver affiliate KMGH. "I'm an American. They are Americans, and I don't feel that's OK. I feel very scared to be in this country with our leadership right now."

Having to listen to what? The President talking about achieving short-term and long-term educational goals? People should be glad that the President cares enough to give them such a message.

Have parents thought about what they might be hearing from some of their own teachers? Or their peers? Nobody seems to care about that.

Really—even if Obama were part of some Communist plot, do you think he’d be stupid enough to outline it in a video shown in every high school in the country?

Or maybe these cretins still believe in the well-discredited “subliminal messages” theory. Maybe they think Obama will flash messages on the screen designed to make teenagers worship the devil or eat more popcorn.

Other Presidents have spoken at high schools. These appearances were mentioned briefly in the news and people moved on. Why is this time different?

I had great hope that America was ready to put ignorance behind it and learn how to think. I guess I was wrong.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Song parody time

I thought it was time for a song parody. Google tells me that some wingnut has beaten me to this idea (and I'm not posting the link here), but I like mine better. It's not Weird Al, but I work a lot cheaper.

(to the tune of "Blame It on the Bossa Nova" by Eydie Gorme)

Well, I lost my job
And my wife done gone
And she left me here
With my dog and gun
But I can’t accept
So I’m gonna blame that guy down in D.C.

Blame it on Barack Obama!
‘Cause my state turned blue
Blame it on Barack Obama!
‘Cause Rush told me to
Last November he carried the day
Now someone said he’ll take my guns away
Blame it on Barack Obama, the President

(Now is it the debt?) No, no, Barack Obama
(Or maybe Dubya Bush?) No, no, Barack Obama
(Or your own damn fault?) No, no, Barack Obama
The President!

Now, my friends and I,
We’re gonna have a ball
We’re gonna raise a fuss
At the old town hall
Gonna rave and rant
And get on the news
As we sing the creeping socialism blues

Blame it on Barack Obama!
‘Cause he’s African
Blame it on Barack Obama!
Just because I can
I can’t believe they voted for that clown
Why, he’s the reason why my car broke down
Blame it on Barack Obama, the President

(Is it random chance?) No, no, Barack Obama
(Or your horoscope?) No, no, Barack Obama
(Or Freemasonry?) No, no, Barack Obama
The President!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Not a place to hide

The 2009 Annual Gathering of American Mensa is in the books. Over 1800 people attended, many people worked really hard, and just about everybody had fun. All that, and Dr. Demento, too.

My adolescence (at least the good part of it) flashed before my eyes when the Doctor gave his presentation on his 50 years in radio. His multimedia presentation was loaded with favorites from his show, such as “Fish Heads,” “Dead Puppies,” and several tracks from Weird Al Yankovic. I revisited a musical world that I once thought was known only to me, but as I looked around the room, I saw that I wasn’t alone after all.

I was given the honor of driving Dr. D from and to the airport. The Doctor is quite reserved off the mike, a contrast to his manic radio personality. He’s still an encyclopedia of musical knowledge off the air, but my conversations with him went all over the place—his hometown of Minneapolis, a collegiate trip across the country on a Vespa scooter, his stints as a roadie for Canned Heat and Spirit, and what Barnes and Barnes are doing now.

I also caught up with many of the people who have been a big part of the story of my life over the past decade. While I haven’t had the chance to attend as many Mensa gatherings over the past two years, Mensa has been, and continues to be, the crux of my social life. I met my wife through Mensa, and we were married at a Mensa function.

I’ve often asked myself, “Why Mensa?” The easy answer is that I get along better with Mensans than I do with the general population, but that just leads to another “Why?”

Is it because I have common interests with them? To some degree, yes. Like many Mensans, I know the words (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) to many (He’s just pining for the fjords!) Monty (Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!) Python routines. But I can get lost in their conversations on many other topics, just as easily as I can in a non-Mensan conversation. And not all of my interests are especially Mensan (I’m still waiting to meet another Mensan with more than a passing interest in horse racing).

Is it because Mensans are inherently kinder or more tolerant than non-Mensans? Anybody who has been involved in Mensa politics knows that’s not true. Mensans can be downright cruel at times. These are, after all, people who hooted when Dr. Demento mentioned a radio station “right here in Philadelphia.”

The other morning, I had one of what my wife calls “epiphanettes,” one of those little insights that tend to hit me when I’m not looking.

I think I found the reason why Mensa gatherings are the only place where I don’t feel like the rear end of a pantomime horse. (Enough with the Python already, Bob!)

Mensa is the only place where I don’t have to hide my intelligence.

It sounds a bit silly on the surface. Why hide your intelligence? The better question is, why show it? Sometimes I wonder why they call people of Mensan-level intelligence “gifted.” Unless that gift happens to be of a specific type that an employer is willing to pay a large sum of money for, it’s a gift as appealing as an ugly tie. The only solution for many of us is not to wear that tie.

Many people are so insecure about their intelligence that they resent the gifted. We are taught from an early age to avoid one-upping classmates, teachers, family, co-workers, and bosses in order to get along in life. Mensa is the one place where we’re able to let the geek flag fly.

One unfamiliar with Mensans might be surprised at the occupations they hold. To trot out a cliché, they do come from all walks of life. Yes, computer geeks are common. There are also lawyers, teachers, doctors, writers, scientists, plumbers, mechanics, electricians, and, yes, a now-retired adult film star. There’s one occupation that I’ve always found under-represented—college professors. (And please don’t bombard my inbox with the names of Mensan professors. I’m going by my own experience here.) My theory? They don’t need Mensa because they don’t have to hide their gifts in the real world.

So to the 1800-plus who attended the 2009 AG, I hope you had a great time. I’ll see you down the road when I have the means to come out of hiding again.

Cheerio, when the moon sails along
In your heart, sing a bright little song
Someday I’ll kiss away your troubles and woe
Cheerio, cherry lips, cheerio

And don’t forget to stay demented!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

On the death—and immortality—of rock ‘n roll

Some pointed comments by E-Streeter Steven Van Zandt at the SXSW musicfest have brought something to the front of my mind that has been back there among all the back issues of Spin for a while.

He’s said what many people have had on their minds for a while—contemporary pop music sucks.

You can hear it for yourself on any commercial FM station that isn’t country (don’t worry, I’ll get to country some other time)—the endless parade of rappers tossing out facile chants about partying, and dance divas bleating through synthesizers about, well, partying.

Top 40 radio never was as great as its reputation suggests (the list of great artists who have never had a Number One hit is too long to reproduce here), but it’s never been as shallow as it is now.

OK, so the Top 40 singles charts haven’t been relevant to anyone over 14 since the mid-80s. (And do they still make singles, anyhow?) You can’t use the old line that “albums are where it’s really at” anymore, either. Don’t believe me? Read this. Of the top 20 best-selling album artists, the only ones who are worth a damn are a band that broke up when I was four and a dead country singer. OK, The Dixie Chicks get points for chutzpah, and sometimes I’ll throw Metallica in there, too, but still…

So, after reading Miami Steve, I’ve been all over the web, reading articles from pundit after pundit prattling about the sorry state of pop music and/or the death of rock ‘n roll.

I have come to two conclusions.

1) Rock is dead.

2) Rock is not dead.

Let me explain.

Almost from its inception, rock has been about more than music. It was a state of mind, an attitude. In the public eye, it was more about youth and rebellion than the music itself.

If you doubt this, watch any documentary about the history of rock ‘n roll. Which are you more likely to see—a music theory professor talking about the blues scale and power chords, or naked girls dancing in the mud at Woodstock?

Rock, the attitude, has been dead for a long time, for a simple reason—old age.

Rock’s audience is older, and its fans are, more often than not, those in power in our society. Kids can’t rebel by listening to their parents’ music, so it’s no accident that many of them now prefer rap and hip-hop. But corporations have discovered that teenagers now have much more disposable income than they had in the early days of rock ‘n roll and are more than happy to give them a place to dispose of it. That’s why so much music aimed at youth today comes across (at least from my more adult perspective) as slick, false, and as menacing as a Muppet.

But then there’s the music itself. Shorn of its controversies and politics, a lot of good music has been released under the general banner of “rock,” and there will be more to come. You just won’t see it on a list in Billboard.

Rock has started to assume a place in American culture similar to jazz. Both come from a rich musical tradition and, while they have both been popular in the past, are now less accessible to the masses. But while they are not as popular, they’re both far from dead.

Rock is still around, in small clubs, on independent labels, and in the hearts and minds of all those who love it. As someone posted on Yahoo! Answers when posed with the “Is rock dead?” question: “If you’re listening to it, no.”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Everyday I face the book

One thing I have noticed is that this blog often does not live up to the subheading.

It reads, "Politics, Culture and Whimsy from a Chipped Chopped Mind." It often seems as if there isn't enough whimsy here. I often think I would like to just babble, do a Jack Kerouac "first thought, best thought" thing. So that's what I'm doing now.

I could go back to mondegreens. Those seem to get a lot of hits, but not one-tenth as many as the Fall Out Boy video. Everybody loves the luleelurah.

I have been accused of making up my mondegreens after the fact. But the mondegreens are exactly as I heard them, although most of them I misheard when I was little. I thought of this one tonight:

WRONG: One little wrong brings home the food that the children never remove
RIGHT: One little wrong brings all the gloom, sends a chill in every room
"Chip Chip," by ?

(The original "Chip Chip" was by Gene McDaniels, but my mondegreen was from a cover version by a female country singer in the early '70s. I don't know the singer, and Google's been no help. Readers? Bueller?)

Then there are those mondegreens which can only be described as Dada:

WRONG: To St. Tiffany I want to pray
RIGHT: When I see Mary Ann walk away
"More Than a Feeling," Boston

St. Tiffany? Not to be confused with St. Taffy, patron saint of the peter pull.

The problem is that a lot of things don't seem funny. Then again, almost anything can seem funny to some people. In my family, we made jokes about serial killers at the dinner table. John Gacy--now that guy was a real laugh riot. I heard he recited the 23rd Psalm while strangling people. And dressed as a clown to boot.

I've been on Facebook a lot lately, discovering a lot of people from high school and college, many of whom I barely knew back then. There's a link to this blog on my profile page, so I can't say anything about what a dork that one guy know who you are...

It certainly is an eclectic group, full of Christians and Jews and pagans and atheists. No Zoroastrians. Yet. There are screaming liberals like me and some right-wingers who....are entitled to their opinion....(cough!) There are gays and grandmothers, Methodists and Mensans, Pittsburgh Steelers (and even some Browns) fans and people who think "first down" is something a gosling has.

And all of them have some connection with me, even though I wouldn't recognize many of them if I were in the same room with them. This is Your Life, Bob Fritz! Do you recognize this voice?

Ah, the power of the Internet. It can make even a nerd feel popular.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Whose American Dream?

The American Dream. It’s a phrase that’s thrown around a lot every day, although few people can tell you what it really means.

Wikipedia defines it thus:

The American Dream refers to the freedom that allows all citizens and all residents of the United States to pursue their goals in life through hard work and free choice.

Wow. Just reading that took my breath away. Well, not literally, but you get the idea. But since the phrase was coined in 1931, its meaning has been bastardized beyond recognition.

The next time you hear “The American Dream” used in the media, pay close attention to how it’s being defined. It’s usually used by a newscaster while footage of some housing plan loaded with ugly McMansions is being shown. The voice-over will say something like, “The cost of the American Dream just got higher today….”

That’s right—the American Dream has been narrowed down to owning a house. Where in the above definition does it say anything about owning a house? Why is it assumed that the goals in life are always material?

The need to survive being what it is, many goals are material, but does that mean the media should be in the business of creating false needs on top of the real needs that are already breaking people’s backs?

Perhaps it’s time to sit back and assess what this American Dream really is.

An idea that has become analogous to The American Dream is the “Horatio Alger story.”

The phrase “Horatio Alger story” comes, strangely enough, from stories written by Horatio Alger, which, allegedly, concern poor boys that become rich through hard work and clean living.

That’s how Alger’s stories are perceived today, mainly because few people currently living have actually read them. Most of the protagonists do not become rich, nor is hard work the main reason for their character development:

“However, it is not the hard work and clean living that rescue the boy from his situation, but rather a wealthy older gentleman, who admires the boy as a result of some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty that the boy has performed. For example, the boy might rescue a child from an overturned carriage or find and return the man's stolen watch. Often the older man takes the boy into his home as a ward or companion.”

So that’s what they called it back then…

Today many of us try to live out a “Horatio Alger story,” overextending ourselves in order to gain wealth or status—to live The American Dream.

Maybe this American Dream is nothing more than a misinterpretation of the works of a 19th-century pulp novelist.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Why do you think they call it trivia?

Last weekend, I took part in something called CultureQuest, which has nothing to do with yogurt or strep throat.

Instead, it is a 90-minute test of "cultural literacy" (a term for people who are too prissy to call it trivia) among teams representing Mensa chapters across the U.S. and Canada. Do you know the eight countries in “The Group of Eight”? Or what characteristic makes the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl ferruginous? Do you care?

I have played on CultureQuest teams for two different Mensa chapters over the past few years, and we have, more often than not, managed to earn a few bucks for the chapter—which is good, because all this knowledge should be worth something.

It’s fun, it’s not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon—but with every passing year it means less to me.

When I was younger, trivia contests were what I was all about. I was a terrible athlete, had no real talent that went beyond the high school marching band—but I never met a state capital that I couldn’t name.

So, I was a natural for “In The Know.” You might know it by a different name in your town, but the principle is the same—a TV show where teams from two high schools answer trivia questions.

I was always pumped for each game, because it was my chance to shine. The results were all too predictable. My school would win one or two games each year, and then lose to a school where people besides me took the game seriously.

Since there are no professional trivia teams, my spotlight disappeared once I left high school (although, for several years afterward, I would often overhear kids in my neighborhood mumble something about “In The Know” whenever they saw me), but that didn’t stop me from wanting to reclaim it. I would play along with “Jeopardy!” whenever it came on. People in the room would usually say one of two things. One was “Shut up!” The other was “You should get on that show.”

I had my chance to get on a quiz show a few years ago when tryouts for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” came to Pittsburgh. I made it all the way to the final interview, but was not chosen.

Why? I think it might have had to do with my answers to a questionnaire where I was supposed to tell the producers about myself, recount interesting things I’ve done, tell them about my most embarrassing moment, and so on. It was then that I realized that I’ve led a pretty boring life.

You’ve seen the interviews with game show contestants where they tell the host about the time they were almost thrown in jail in Mexico or climbed a mountain in the Alps. My most embarrassing moment involved pissing off a state driving examiner. Not exactly something that’s going to keep people from switching over to SportsCenter.

The contestants may be lying through their teeth, but their stories are interesting, so they make for good TV. TV game shows aren’t about being smart. They’re about being entertaining.

Which is just as well, because life is no longer a trivia contest for me. I would like to see a game show full of information that is truly relevant. “If you had to be late with one of these payments, which one would it be—house, car, or credit card?” Now that’s important information. How about, “In a job interview, what is your response to, ‘What is your greatest weakness?’”

Forget being a millionaire. I’m just glad I’m not a slumdog.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Personal responsibility

Pittsburgh is not the first place most people would guess that a tragedy like last week’s shooting, which left three police officers dead, would occur, let alone the relatively quiet neighborhood of Stanton Heights.

While most of us were shocked by what happened, what will happen from here is all too predictable. The accused gunman, Richard Poplawski, will have his day in court, during which he will have a free public soapbox for his ridiculous conspiracy theories. He will then have 10 or 15 years to write his book, and then, as a prosecutor on "Law and Order" once put it, there’s that pesky needle.

Much has been said in the media about Poplawski’s easy access to a variety of guns and extremist media. It’s enough to make you think that the Bill of Rights—or at least its first two amendments—might have been a bad idea.

But the problem isn’t too many rights—it’s not enough responsibility.

There is the Second Amendment guaranteeing the American public’s right to keep and bear arms (although nobody seems to quote the part about the “well regulated militia”). I have no problem, in general, with someone wanting to own a gun, but I don’t understand the fascination with guns—and I find the whole fanatical “from my cold, dead hands” gun culture creepy.

Poplawski, with a less-than-honorable discharge from the Marines and a restraining order from a former girlfriend, was able to buy four weapons, including an AK-47, from a local gun store. And nobody saw anything wrong with this picture?

If I walked into a bar visibly drunk, the bar could not legally serve me another drink. If I claimed that I had a Constitutional right to one more beer, nobody would take me seriously. Yet nobody questions why someone with danger all over his past would want an AK-47.

Then there is the First Amendment—the right to free speech. I’m a former journalist, so you won’t find anybody more opposed to censorship than I.

But it’s hard to ignore that two major influences on Poplawski are right-wing crank Alex Jones, who alleges that FEMA (an agency barely capable of handing people bottles of water) is building concentration camps, and Fox News’ Glenn Beck, who disseminates nightly lies about President Obama. Not to mention Poplawski’s frequent visits to hate sites such as Stormfront.

But we know what will happen. The Becks and Hannitys and Limbaughs will all throw Poplawski under the bus. “Don’t blame us. That’s not what we meant. Don’t censor us over the actions of a lone nut.” Nobody is talking about censorship—but shouldn’t media outlets accept some responsibility for the messages they send?

“Personal responsibility” has long been the mantra of right wingers, especially when they want to berate some alleged “welfare queen.”

It’s time for the right wing to accept some personal responsibility of its own.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Who pays for infallibility?

I’m not Catholic, I certainly don’t play one on TV, nor did I stay at the Vatican Holiday Inn Express last night. The closest I’ve come to being Catholic is rooting for Notre Dame.

At the same time, several of my family members are Catholic, and one of the best friends of my family is a priest who used to come to the house to give communion to my Irish Catholic grandmother. When it comes to Catholicism, I may be on the outside looking in, but I’m standing pretty close to the front window.

Since I’m not bound by Catholic teachings, papal pronouncements about such things as birth control usually strike me as quaint and easily dismissed. But a recent pronouncement by Pope Benedict XVI makes me wonder just how much of a grip he has on reality.

During his recent trip to Africa, the Pope went one step beyond his usual opposition to birth control to make the claim that condoms make AIDS worse. Abstinence is, of course, the only way to go in his universe.

He said this to a continent where four out of every five AIDS infections occur, over 20 million people are infected with the disease, and over 20 percent of adults in three countries.

He said this to a continent where some people believe a legend that says that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. This has resulted in the wholesale rape and infection of children.

And yet, the Pope is leading the continent on a course that will surely lead to more disease and death in order to attempt to adhere to someone’s centuries-old interpretation of the Bible.

Whether abstinence is a worthy goal, I’ll leave up to you, but any idea based on asking people to avoid normal mammalian behavior is dicey at best—and, in this case, deadly.

But wait! Why am I wasting my time with this entry? This isn’t really about AIDS or abstinence or condoms. It’s about a church that, once again, has to maintain its image of infallibility by, once again, not knowing to admit when it’s wrong.

It took the Catholic Church 400 years to apologize to Galileo.

Africa can’t wait that long.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The 15 albums that changed my life

This is one of many silly exercises that’s been going around Facebook ever since old fogeys like me discovered the site, and I find the idea very intriguing. But I maintain that most people who post their lists, as the lolcats would say, r doin it rong.
Most of the lists I’ve seen are just lists of people’s favorite albums—which is just fine, but it doesn’t answer the question.
Anybody can make a list of their favorite albums. I’ve done it several times. But the exercise is asking you to list those albums that changed your life in some way. The idea that a collection of songs could somehow change you from a crack addict to the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation is absurd. By “changing your life,” I’ll settle for something along the lines of introducing you to a certain type of music, helping you get through a particularly difficult time, or providing the soundtrack for an important or happy time in your life.
They do not have to be your favorites. They may not even be albums you like. There are titles below that I don’t own on CD—and don’t really care to.

1. The Archies

Some of the most dishonest of these lists contain only albums from artists who’ve been around over the past 10 years or so. Which means that the writers apparently listened to no music until about 10 years ago. I asked myself, “What was the first pop music you remember hearing?” That’s why this list starts with the cartoon avatars for a group of nameless session musicians singing facile odes to young love. This was my introduction to pop music. I could have done a lot worse.

2. The Beatles (the “White Album”)

This was my introduction to adult pop music, and what an introduction it was. The White Album is often docked for being a sprawling, disorganized mess, but that’s what great about it. Consider that the Paul wrote both “I Will” and “Helter Skelter”—and that John wrote both “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and “Julia.” Did any other band cover so much ground in so short a time?

3. Elvis’ Golden Records, Elvis Presley

I was too young for all the hysteria that accompanied Elvis’ entry into the national consciousness, but this album made me feel as if I’d been there. It contains the first evidence that proved that Elvis was The King.

4. Rubber Soul, The Beatles

It’s hard to believe now, but when I was little, any rock music that came out between, say, 1955 and 1966 was considered too sweet for more “modern” tastes. Even The Beatles seemed like two different bands to me then—the cute mopheads who sang “She Loves You” and the post-Sgt. Pepper group that my grandpa called “long-haired hippies.” This album showed me that the early incarnation had just as much substance as the late one—arguably, more.

5. My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello

This was the first album I bought with my own money. I was 12. I’d seen Costello on Saturday Night Live and read a glowing review of this album in Hit Parader, so I knew I had to get it. It introduced me to a wonderful world of music that I wasn’t about to hear on Top 40 radio—and a lot more than music, but more about that later.

6. Let There Be Rock, AC/DC

I could have picked any Bon Scott-era AC/DC album, but I chose this one because I gained the nickname “Angus” in high school for playing the opening riff to “Whole Lotta Rosie” on the piano when I entered the band room. The name stuck with me well into college. Musically, it was heaven for a 15-year-old boy—three chords, basement sound, and lyrics full of unsubtle sexual metaphor. But it showed me that rock, above all else, should be fun.

7. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon

I first heard this album not long after Lennon died, and I still feel its impact. Here was a Beatle—a fucking Beatle!—going through the same kind of pain I went through in adolescence. From his unstable childhood to the Beatles’ breakup, it’s all right here. Sort of like a celebrity reality TV show, except it’s real.

8. The Doors

Like most public school educated 16-year-olds, I couldn’t tell the difference between stoned gibberish and real poetry. I thought Jim Morrison was a poet, and it wasn’t long before I thought I was one, too. Thanks a lot, Jim. But Ray Manzarek’s mesmerizing keyboards and the album’s overall spooky vibe keep me coming back to this day.

9. The Best of the Manhattan Transfer, The Manhattan Transfer

A college roommate had this cassette. It always brought me peace when I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown—which was about three times a week. Their a capella version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” still sends a chill up my spine. This record taught me that rock ‘n roll’s not the only music that can save your soul.

10. Shadowland, k.d. lang

lang was the first artist I discovered completely on my own, without the recommendation of a friend or music critic. I first saw her on the Tonight Show, singing “Tears Don’t Care Who Cries Them.” I thought, “Well, she’s weird looking, but damn!—what a voice!” And the rest of this CD is just as stellar.

11. My Favorite Things, John Coltrane

I bought this around 1990 or so, but it would be years before its impact would become apparent. It was the first jazz CD I owned, and it was an anomaly in my collection for years (in my traveling CD case, it’s on the same page with Nirvana and the Sex Pistols). But it presaged a time when rock would no longer be my basic unit of musical currency.

12. The Velvet Underground and Nico

As clichéd as the word “mind-blowing” is, it fits here. Heroin, sado-masochism, you name it—Lou Reed can write a song about it without flinching. Rock has many poets, but Reed might have been its first journalist.

13. Nevermind, Nirvana

I had abandoned contemporary rock during the hair-band era in favor of country and ‘60s classic rock. Hair metal struck me as phony and formulaic, and I wondered if rock wasn’t finally dead after all. This CD brought me—and the world—back to rock ‘n roll.

14. BloodSugarSexMagik, Red Hot Chili Peppers

I think this was the first CD I bought that bore a Parental Advisory sticker. Between its f-bombs and its hot mix of punk and funk, it was a great introduction to the freewheeling aesthetic of ‘90s alternative-rock culture.

15. When I Was Cruel, Elvis Costello

While it was Costello’s best record in years, it changed my life for more personal reasons. I mentioned on a Yahoo! group that I was about to see Costello on his tour supporting this CD. This started an extended conversation with Jamie, the woman who would become my wife.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Marxism—or just common sense?

Anybody who thinks C-SPAN is boring has never listened to the phone calls on its morning show, “Washington Journal.” It’s become an outlet for extremists on both ends of the political spectrum whose computers haven’t warmed up yet.

There’s just something about actually hearing crackpots’ voices that makes them even sillier than reading their blather in print. I’ll never forget the time I came into the show in mid-tirade and heard the following conclusion:

“It’s time for us right-wingers to forget about the ballot box and start thinking about the bullet box.” Charming, eh?

The other day, the topic was the proposed limits on executive salaries for those companies that are being bailed out by the U.S. Government. A proposal by President Obama would limit their salaries to $500,000 a year. The horror.

One caller vehemently opposed this idea, calling it “Marxism.”

I’ll bet you even money that caller has never read The Communist Manifesto, and learned everything about Marxism from Rush Limbaugh.

I certainly learned a thing or two about Marxism just from its Wikipedia entry. I had no idea there were so many different schools of Marxist thought. If it interests you, feel free to read the entry. For these purposes, I think the overview will suffice. It says that most forms of Marxism share these principles:

• an attention to the material conditions of people's lives and social relations among people
• a belief that people's consciousness of the conditions of their lives reflects these material conditions and relations
• an understanding of class in terms of differing relations of production and as a particular position within such relations
• an understanding of material conditions and social relations as historically malleable
• a view of history according to which class struggle, the evolving conflict between classes with opposing interests, structures each historical period and drives historical change
• a sympathy for the working class or proletariat
• and a belief that the ultimate interests of workers best match those of humanity in general

What does any of that have to do with asking for some accountability from some fat cats who are begging for corporate welfare? Would Marx have approved of taking money from the working class and giving it to capitalists? If anything, the bailout is as anti-Marxist as it gets. Measures such as a salary cap just give the bailout the same sort of checks and balances that is the basis for the U.S. Government.

I assume that those crying “Marxism” are not corporate executives, because they would be too busy to be jamming the lines at C-SPAN. Would they feel better if the corporations were just written a blank check?

I think we’d be better off if America were more Groucho-Marxist. But that’s a theory of another color.

Friday, January 30, 2009

And in the end...

Somebody at named JBev has a lot more time on his hands than I do.

He actually rated all 185 original compositions performed by The Beatles as a group and posted them on the site, with an explanation for each that goes far beyond “cool” or “sucks.”

The list stretches for 20 web pages, and will be excruciating reading for many (although it doesn’t seem half as long as watching the movie Across The Universe), but a delight for some Beatles fans. If you don’t really care about the nuances of “Tell Me Why” or “The Night Before,” you may want to skip to the summary on the last page.

I dug it, of course.

As with all such lists, there are bound to be arguments. Perhaps the least controversial entry is the first—“Revolution 9” at number 185. As groundbreaking as John Lennon thought it was, it just didn’t work (although I still prefer it to Celine Dion’s best song).

My first “Aw, come on!’ moment came a stride out of the gate with “Honey Pie” at number 184. Maybe it’s because I used to dance around the house with a cane and an old sport coat singing the song when I was seven. But it’s not a bad song. Among Paul’s “granny” songs, I would rank it behind “When I’m Sixty-Four” and in front of “Your Mother Should Know.”

That’s one problem with the list. Maybe I’m a blind fan, but I submit that The Beatles never made a bad song. (Their solo efforts don’t count for these purposes. Neither does Yoko.) Some were just more significant than others. JBev is more attuned to the Fab Four’s subtleties, as those songs near the bottom represent some of their extremes—the most upbeat (“Good Day Sunshine”) and downbeat (“Yer Blues”) songs in their catalog, as well as their attempts to be headbangers (“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”) and lounge lizards (“Ask Me Why”).

There are arguments along the way, as there are bound to be. Not much love for “Day Tripper” or “Julia,” way too much for “I Am The Walrus” (number two?) and “Dear Prudence” (the highest-rated White Album track at number 11?), and cheers for the lofty placement of some underrated gems such as “Yes It Is” or "If I Fell."

After showing so much guts along the way, JBev gives us the most predictable number one—“A Day in the Life.” It’s certainly a pop music landmark, and it’s the correct left-brained choice, but is it the song that any Beatles fan really enjoys the most?

Two more interesting possibilities for the top spot came in at numbers four and five. Number four is “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” (rated as one song here). The Beatles had done everything thought possible in pop music, and more, and they couldn’t have gone out more eloquently than they did on that Abbey Road medley. Number five is “Hey Jude”—their biggest hit and certainly one of the most uplifting songs ever, ending with the best vamp (no, not the kind Cher used to sing about on her TV show) in pop music history.

There are other reasons to pick a favorite. “Something”—number nine on the list—has gained a special place in my heart in recent years. My wife and I danced to it on the weekend we met, and it was the first song we danced to at our wedding. It seems heretical to put a George Harrison song at the top of the list, but it now has a spot that goes beyond any list.

The ‘60s are over, and new generations have held The Beatles’ music up to a scrutiny that wasn’t possible during the full fervor of Beatlemania. The band’s legacy has proven that the music is strong enough to withstand that scrutiny.

P.S. You might also want to check out the comments at the bottom of the page. As I write this, the last comment appears to be from Julian Lennon.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dementions and dementites...

Imagine getting the chance to meet Michael Jordan, Paul McCartney, or someone else who was your hero when you were young.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster willing, I will get that opportunity in July.

It started a few months ago when plans were being made for the 2009 Annual Gathering of American Mensa, which will be held in Pittsburgh 4th of July weekend. The theme is “AM-FM, About Mensans, For Mensans.” Since the AG is the year’s biggest Mensa event, there’s a dinner with a keynote speaker. I started thinking about the theme, and one speaker leaped out at me, so I made the suggestion to the AG speaker chair, Brea Ludwigson.

Earlier this week, I learned that the plans are on.

Dr. Demento is coming to the 2009 AG.

It’s more than an honor to finally meet the man who provided the soundtrack for my Wonder Years.

Thanks to someone desperately in need of a life, I can pinpoint the night—actually, the moment—when I first heard The Dr. Demento Show.

I was 12 at the time, and my tastes in music—and just about everything else—were starting to set me apart from my peers. I already preferred The Beatles to The Bee Gees, Chicago to Boston, and Al Stewart to Rod Stewart (although I should note that, at the time, Rod was slogging through dreck like “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”). I watched every British comedy that Channel 34 showed (we all know about Monty Python, but how many Americans remember “Dave Allen at Large”? Or “No, Honestly”?). And I actually—gasp!—read for fun. And I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t have a date for the eighth grade dinner dance?

So, one night (apparently, Oct. 22, 1978), I was flipping through the FM stations trying to find a rabbit hole to crawl in before I went to sleep and came across Q-FM-96, which, like most album-rock stations in the late ‘70s, played “Stairway to Heaven” and “Free Bird” on a continuous loop. I was not expecting to hear Cheech and Chong singing the theme from Up in Smoke. This was followed by “There’s a New Sound”—which was “the sound that’s made by worms.” Don’t ask.

Within weeks, Dr. Demento had replaced "American Top 40" as my required Sunday radio listening. Not only was I taping the show to play during the week, I was writing the lyrics to Funny 5 favorites in a notebook. There was “Fish Heads,” “Dead Puppies,” “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” and the demented oeuvres of Allan Sherman, Tom Lehrer, Shel Silverstein, and, of course, Frank Zappa.

It wasn’t all songs about dead dogs and seafood detritus, though. Some of the show’s best parts came when Dr. D got deep into music history. He could go on about what ASCAP and BMI were and how they came to be, or how “Yes! We Have No Bananas” became a big hit in the 1920s. I was just as likely to hear Al Jolson on the show as Weird Al Yankovic.

It was during these years that Weird Al first gained airplay with “My Bologna” on his way to mainstream fame. He was interviewed “under the smogberry trees,” as were Zappa and demented music makers ranging from Lenny and Squiggy to Barnes and Barnes. While a Funny 5 favorite occasionally received mainstream airplay, nobody else that I knew really cared about this music. It was, as far as I knew, my own, private musical world. And, apparently, it was, as the Q stopped carrying the show in 1982 due to low ratings (although it has resurfaced on that station on Sunday mornings).

It was not until I started going to RGs regularly in my 30s that I learned that I was, indeed, not alone. There are many people in Mensa who are, to paraphrase The great Luke Ski, true “D” fans—who own every Weird Al CD, once drove three hours to see DaVinci’s Notebook, and can recite “Earache My Eye” from memory (not just the song, but the father-son tirade as well).

And so it was, when I found out that the AG would have a radio theme, I could think of only one choice for a keynote speaker.

As Wayne and Garth would have said, WE’RE NOT WORTHY!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

It really is the economy, stupid

I saw Roger and Me last night, best known as the film that made Michael Moore the left-wing icon he is today. While some things about the film haven’t aged well—the hairdos are hilarious—the theme is no less relevant today.

As the film begins, Moore shows us home movies of his childhood in Flint, Mich., when General Motors was king. His dad worked for GM, and the images of dancing spark plugs and Pat Boone crooning for Chevy paint a picture of the American Dream.

Fast forward to the ‘80s as GM closes 11 auto plants across the country in favor of the sunny climes and slave wages of Mexico, even though GM was making record profits. Flint, a one-industry town, is devastated.

The film documents Flint’s descent into poverty as celebrities visit to give empty motivational speeches, local PR wonks make lame attempts to wrap shit in a pretty package, and Moore makes repeated attempts to interview GM CEO Roger Smith.

The first time I heard Smith’s name was in college (roughly about the time that Roger and Me was taking place). I had an economics class with Young Koo, a Korean professor who talked about “suppry and demand.” Lee Iacocca’s name was a household word at the time, but Koo pointed out that he wasn’t the highest paid auto executive. Who was? Roger Smith.

How strange that I saw Smith as a hero back then instead of the real-life Mr. Burns that this film reveals him to be.

Roger and Me shows the human toll behind the headlines. We follow a deputy sheriff evicting people in the most civil way he can. We hear from a man who had a panic attack on the way home from the plant after learning he lost his job. In the film’s most controversial scene, we see a woman killing and skinning a rabbit to help pay the rent (of course, more people made a fuss about a rabbit than the 30,000 people laid off). We see a parade (it literally is a parade at one point) of Middle American icons—Miss America, Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, Robert Schuller—offering uplifting, but empty, words of encouragement. But the most stunning images are the journeys through block after block of abandoned houses and businesses in Flint. Add “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to the list of songs I’ll never think of in the same way again.

Economics was a bit of a bore for me in college. It was one of those classes that I took because I heard it would help me get a job, even though I would rather have been reading Shakespeare. And it was pretty dull, but it didn’t have to be.

For behind all the dry statistics (I’m still trying to figure out just what the kinked demand curve was supposed to represent), there are people. Since Roger and Me came out, we’ve had the dot-com boom, the dot-com bust, housing foreclosures, corporate bankruptcies, scandals, you name it. And behind each economic shift, people are affected.

Economics is more than just a boring subject in school. In a big way, it is life.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


It's Troy Polamalu's number. It's Darren Sproles' number, and he had a pretty good game last night. It was Richard Petty's number, and NASCAR fans still call him "The King." Channel 43 in Cleveland showed a lot of old TV shows on cable when I was little. And as of today, it's my age.

Birthdays don't mean much as you get older. You can get into R-rated movies at 17, you can vote at 18, you can drink at 21--but what does being 43 enable you to do? Not much.

People make a big deal out of turning 30. It seems to symbolize that a big part of your life is now over, that life is no fun anymore. I don't know why our culture is so geared toward youth. I remember a song by Blink 182 a few years ago which contained the line "Nobody loves you when you're 23." Twenty-three is over the hill. Incredible. What are we--a bunch of Neanderthals who don't live past 30?

I think the main reason that youth is jammed down our throats 24/7 by the media is because young people have a lot of money to blow on crap. People my age don't have the disposable income to blow on clothes, CDs and the latest electronic doo-dad. But once you've got adult responsibilities and Madison Avenue can't wheedle any more money out of you, well, then you suck.

It's the age-old question: would you do it all over if you could? I think there's a lot of psychodrama that comes with being a young adult that I would not want to relive, but I often think of all the opportunities I had that I didn't take advantage of.

So, in a way, 43 is fine. But then I start thinking about the future. I reached the point a few years ago where cemeteries started to creep me out. Then early last year, I had this really bad freakout at the prospect of not existing someday. I still hate the idea of death. It is so...out of your control. The idea of total powerlessness--who can stand that? Not many people, which is why religion is so popular, and why churches are filled with people over 60.

And it begs the question of why most of us are here. To work some meaningless job and have a little fun--what's the point? When you're gone, has your life impacted anything or anybody in any significant way?

And on that cheery note, I will let you go back to the viral video or reality show of your choice.