Friday, December 31, 2004

Another year done gone

It’s always hard to fathom another year being put in the books. Often, the end of the year is filled with remorse, regret and a resolve to do better during the coming year. I’m no different than many in that I’ve made my share of stupid resolutions—some years I even wrote them down!

I’ll not bore you with any resolutions this year. For the first time in many years and possibly in my 42 years on the planet, I reach the end of a year without any significant personal regrets.

For the past year, I’ve moved in a direction that has been positive for me. Last January, I left a cubicle in corporate America to pursue writing as my vocation, instead of hobby. While I’ve made less money this year than during any previous one, I can honestly say I’m happier than I’ve ever been, although my happiness might be another man’s (or woman’s) dismay.

I’ve come to recognize personally, rather than intellectually, that “things” don’t make you happy. Happiness, as elusive as it may be, comes from the people you surround yourself with, the choices you make to embrace your inner self, or creative muse (or whatever you want to call it, without sounding like some New Age crank); some might call it living intuitively versus depending entirely upon over analysis in all that you do.

While I certainly have things I’d like to do better in 2005, or improvements that I’d like to make; things like losing ten pounds, getting an article (s) published in a national magazine, being a little more focused on others rather than myself, I’m not going to obsess or beat myself up about them. I’m learning to be comfortable in my own skin and I hope you are too.

I’d like to end this soliloquy with my list of the people and things I appreciate from 2004:

The Good:

My wife and lifelong partner, Mary (props and mad love), my son Mark (may you have fun at life), my dog (and walking partner) Bernie, blogging, books, Atrios, libraries, Jose Ayerve, Paul at FACE, the Millers (#1 family), DrFrag (tech guru), Matt Newberg (plus Jeff, Darren, Greg and of course, Norm!), AirAmerica, civil discourse, Reny’s, Sally at APL, my uncle Bob, old time baseball, Clif Bars, drivers who slow down, asfo_del(your writing rocks!), Chuck Munson and Infoshop, WFMU, Mike Lupica, Joe Belock, Irene Trudel, PBR, local music, free pubs, The Pigeon (RIP), indie bookstores, South Park, John Stewart, CSpan, Fair Trade Coffee, Chicky’s Diner, Orion Magazine, Derrick Jensen, Wendell Berry, The Movies, Neil Young, Trudy Chambers Price, used records, Twilight Baseball (Al and Frankie), the baseball guys, Wisdom Weasel, the Hartleys, and all the little and not so little things that make life worth living.

The Not-So-Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:

The war in Iraq, tsunamis, governments that lie, obfuscate and mislead, power, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Rummy, Britney Spears, reality TV, stupid people, faux patriotism, Tim Russert and the other corporate media hacks, Bill O’Reilly (sucks), drivers who don’t slow down (and talk on cell phones), Wal-Mart, chain stores, Sinclair Broadcasting, greedy rich bastards, professional sports, The Portland Press Herald, capitalism run amok, ideologues, publications who don’t pay on time, asshole editors, kitsch, lousy parents, boorish kids, sweatshops, former co-workers/"friends" too self-absorbed to answer your emails, Desperate Housewives, selfish people, strip malls, inequality, gentrification, yuppies, SUV’s, military spending, and all the other things that rob us of our life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Happy New Year! May 2005 be a year when people matter more than profit, where talent and creativity are rewarded, and where nature and its creatures are protected instead of paved over. May peace be the norm, rather than the exception!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Disaster relief update

Thanks to Richard over at no more big wheels for his link to a clearinghouse of sites and organizations involved in disaster relief.

You can access it at enemy of the state.

I would urge everyone out there to contribute what you can to help alleviate the misery and suffering of the tens of thousands affected by the tsunami.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Natural disaster

The tsunami that hit southern Asia has left a swath of destruction across the region. The numbers killed from the various countries hit by waves that some estimate were 10 stories tall, are growing by the hour.

The death toll is being estimated at over 27,000 for areas affected along the southern Asian coastline. According to The Times of India, hardest hit were Sri Lanka with more than 12,000 reported fatalities, and India, which is reporting 8,500 killed by the natural disaster. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reports Indonesia was hit hard, with the latest official death toll at 4,422, but the number is certain to rise. Most of the victims are in the province of Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra, which has been the target of a huge military operation aimed at crushing separatist rebels and cowering the population. Media coverage in the province has been subject to severe restrictions and censorship for more than a year. Other affected areas were the low-lying Maldives and the Andaman Islands, coastal areas of Thailand, including the holiday resort island of Phuket, as well as Malaysia and Burma, which received poundings by the massive seas. The tsunami was felt as far away as east Africa—6,000 kilometres to the west—including Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania. Nine people were killed in Somalia.

The tsunami, or tidal wave, was triggered by a massive earthquake that was measured at 8.9 on the Richter Scale by the National Earthquake Centre at the US Geological Survey. This quake was the largest since 1964 and the fifth largest measured since 1900.

The devastation is hard to fathom for us in America. We have had our earthquakes, flooding, as well as the death toll from 9-11, but nothing of the magnitude of the carnage being beamed into our homes from this region thousands of miles away. Reports of aid being sent are starting to materialize. Many ordinary Americans want to do something, as is often the case when we witness tragedy. Our government has pledged an initial $15 million, which I certainly hope will be increased.

I hope that many of the multinational corporations who have been the beneficiaries of the low-wage labor from many of these devastated countries might step forth and offer tangible aid and resources. One can argue the ethics of sweatshop labor day and night, but regardless of its rightness, now is a time for corporate capitalists to pony up and show the world whether they have any moral compass or not.

For individuals who want to help the victims, there are a couple of options that might be good places to start; the International Red Cross is always an immediate responder to disasters across the world. For those looking for a faith-based agency, the interfaith Church World Services has been a long-time responder to the needs of the world's citizens requiring help and resources in the midst of war or natural disasters.

If readers have other reputable aid agencies and organizations that provide direct relief in the form of medical supplies, clothing, food, as well as temporary shelter, I'd be happy to pass the information along in future posts.

Monday, December 27, 2004

A national holiday

Sometimes I think that the U.S. should just make the period between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, a national holiday. For the miniscule amount of work and productivity that’s accomplished, Americans would benefit from the relaxation and vacation such a period would allow.

Granted, those poor souls stuck in their retail sector ghetto would never be allowed time off. With corporate bean counters doing all they can to either recover from a lackluster holiday season, or move merchandise in their annual post-holiday price massacres, the working poor that make up American retail would be forced to perform their regular labor routines.

Having worked in a variety of places over the past ten years, I’ve found that most workers do as little work as they humanly can during this period. Additionally, with women now making up an ample portion of the labor force and taking portions of the holiday break off in order to stay home with little Johnny and Janie, voice mail greetings inform you that Mary in marketing, or Suzy in accounts payable is out of the office until January 5th. Because you can’t get anyone else to return calls, you decide to pull the plug on any meaningful projects until that second week of January.

In my own life, I’ve found it hard to rev up the productivity necessary to move my writing forward in any meaningful way this week. The two or three days around Christmas have killed my momentum. Also, most editors, publishers and others will be out of the office for much of the next week or so making any mailing of manuscripts futile. I am also being asked to work the next four nights manning the phones and handling a rush of Christmas returns in my seasonal position, so I’m in my own holding pattern of sorts.

It’s all a vicious cycle, so I really think my national holiday idea warrants some consideration. You never know, it could become a campaign issue worth considering, as leisure time is never as plentiful in America as it is for our friends across the pond in Europe.

Friday, December 24, 2004

The War on Christmas

The media’s latest “flavor of the month” is the supposed “war on Christmas”. Apparently, heathen, atheistic liberals have removed all vestiges of Jesus from a holiday that had long ago been divested of its higher meaning.

Like the misreporting on the war in Iraq, particularly in the early days of fighting, the inability of the press to hold President Bush to standards of journalism applied to other presidents, and recently, the bogus “red state/blue state” divide in America, the media in all its traditional functions keeps missing the real stories.

Christians have taken up the torch and are once more playing a role that they seem most comfortable in—that of the poor, persecuted believer.

The last time I drove around, I didn’t see any lack of Christmas lights, nativity scenes, and other symbols and decorations specific to Christmas.

While I have nothing against anyone celebrating Christmas, I also recognize that not everyone is a Christian in America, and that others may celebrate this holiday in ways that don’t include Jesus.

This entire faux battle about the religious importance of Christmas isn’t new to me. I remember in 1982, I had just left the University of Maine and was back in my hometown looking for a car. I stopped by a gas station on Lisbon Street where the proprietor had used one of those spray cans that dispense white lettering for windows; in great big letters, he had the following message—“Jesus is the reason for the season”. The owner felt it was his duty to talk about Jesus with everyone who entered his business. I stopped in and had to listen to his spiel about the secularization of Christmas until I couldn’t take it any longer and left. The issue wasn’t big news at the time, because the media hadn’t seized upon the issue. For years, many Christians have claimed Christmas as their domain. While I don’t begrudge their right to celebrate, unfortunately, they are often played by religious leaders and others as pawns in this ongoing culture war that is a myth.

America is a diverse and multicultural nation, despite what the pundits and hate talkers ridiculously assert. Because of this, the holiday season, beginning from Thanksgiving through New Years, isn’t the property solely of the religious right and others who revel in the need to create pitched battles that benefit their bottom line. All this does is keep America divided at a time when we need to begin pulling together against our real enemies.

I close by saying that the Baumer household does celebrate Christmas, albeit in a very un-American, non-consumer sort of way. We buy hardly any gifts, other than the occasional item of clothing for family members in need.

Last year, we decided on creating our own traditions as a self-contained unit of three, due primarily to the unpredictable holiday celebrations of our extended families. As a result, my wife and I hold an open house Christmas Eve, which we have jokingly dubbed, "the misfits Christmas Eve celebration". We extend invitations to family (who usually don't come), friends, and others who might be looking for a place to get a meal, a cup of grog, and experience a festive celebration that is similar to what I remember the holidays being when I was a kid—a time when family and friends came together and enjoyed one another’s company. I think we need a whole lot more of this type of Christmas, or holdiday spirit, don't you?

To all my readers, I want to take this opportunity to wish you and yours a very festive and happy holiday in whatever way you choose to celebrate it.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Best of 2004

I’m not a big fan of “best of” lists, although like any sucker, I find myself reading through most of the ones I come face to face with.

Deciding to jump on the bandwagon, yet differ from others, I give you my best of list that falls short of the usual ten items. These selections are the best of what I’ve listened to in 2004 and represent the personal tastes and predilections of the author.

Neil Young’s Greendale disc was actually released in the fall of 2003, but for my purposes, it was a 2004 release, particularly since I saw the movie on a cold Saturday in April, driving to Waterville to catch the showing at Railroad Square.

Without any further provocation, here’s my best in 2004:

Steve Earle-The Revolution Starts Now
Populist troubadour Steve Earle followed 2002’s excellent Jerusalem with another solid effort. When Earle wished for the return of Woody Guthrie, back in ’97, many music fans could identify. Not to be iconic, but with the combination of his music, outspokenness concerning the war and politics in general, as well as his efforts as a writer and host of a weekly radio show, Earle might be the closest thing that music has to a modern-day Woody Guthrie.

Spouse-Are You Gonna Kiss or Wave Goodbye
Spouse’s latest release shows growth from a band that gets better every time out. Representing indie rock’s best elements, Are You Gonna Kiss has pensive tunes like the title cut, interspersed with uptempo rockers like Army Song, with it’s dead on take about what it means to join the military. Spouse eschews the "louder is better" approach to write songs that both rock and don't insult the listener.

Spouse is one of those “secret” bands that fans like to keep to themselves, as some type of badge of honor. Don’t! Spouse is a band deserving of a wider following, so blast the new record and do it loud and do it proud.

Neil Young-Greendale
What’s there to say about Young that hasn’t already been said? Young is an American rock icon as much as any artist alive today. With that status, it would be understandable for a 57 year old rocker to put it on cruise control and dial it in, but that’s never been Young’s style and he’s not about to start now. The latest effort from Young and mates shows a display of some vintage song-smithing, guitar work, all the while pushing boundaries with his latest concept album.

Greendale is a musical novel as much as anything. Chronicling the goings-on of a mythical town and three generations of the fictional Green family, the movie and subsequent soundtrack, hearkens back to a simpler time.

The stories, represented by the songs, represents a rural America where old-time values and ethics still existed—a place where deals were signed with a handshake and a person could still make a successful life with hard work and an honest effort.

As we all know, those days are gone and not coming back anytime soon.

Social Distortion-Sex, Love, and Rock and Roll
After doing his best to channel the spirit of outlaw country artists like Hank Williams, George Jones and Johnny Cash, Mike Ness is back with a new Social Distortion effort and it kicks fans right in the teeth with its classic punk-tinged rock and roll.

His foray into traditional country and American roots music was a welcome respite for Ness. He showed his abilities to do something other than rage above the roar of his Les Paul. It’s when Ness is rocking however, that he’s at his best and most comfortable. Like prior SD efforts, this one has Ness belting out lyrics filled with despair, anger, yet surprisingly offering some hope also.

It’s been a tough stretch for Ness, as he lost long-time bandmate and musical collaborator, Dennis Canell, in 2003. It’s obvious that Ness has spent some time thinking about life, loss and why are we here. The pain and questions are apparent in the lyrics, particularly the fast and furious opening track, “Reach for the Sky”.

Other solid tracks are the nostalgic “Highway 101” and the signature SD slower track offering redemption, the reflective “Angel Wings”.

Mike Ness has never shied away from wearing his heart and emotions on his sleeve and the latest outing with the boys is no departure from that style.

Matt Newberg and the Hurricane-Buffalo
Local singer/songwriter Newberg teams up with his band, the roots-rocking Hurricane to produce their strongest effort to date. Mixing in music that has a very “lived in” quality in tunes such as “Cover Me” and “Turn Black”, to the more rock and roll title cut, Buffalo shows a band ready to break out of the regional category they currently reside in to a larger national audience.
Pick up the latest disc and take the opportunity to go out and catch Matt and the boys when they come to a town near you.

The Speaking Canaries-Get Out Alive: The Last Type Story

Pittsburgh’s The Speaking Canaries are rock and rolls best-kept secret. Like hundreds of other talented and underappreciated bands everywhere, TSC continue to put out solid record after solid record to the collective ignorance of the musical marketplace.

Sporting songs that hearken back to the best of 70’s rock and roll, with song structures that afford the musicians room to move, their songs are too long for modern-rock radio. Guitarist Damon Che channels Eddie Van Halen in an indie rock sort of way. Songs like “Menopause Diaries” combines strong songwriting, a melodic arrangement, and Che’s signature axe grinding. “The Last Side of Town” has a prog-rock vibe in parts, but then crashes back into driving rock tempo. It represents the kind of seven minute workout that those of us old enough to have experienced the 70’s can appreciate.

You can listen to the two above-mentioned songs via MP3 at the great Scat website. Do your part to support truly-independent music and pick up a couple of Scat releases before the end of the year.

Robyn Hitchcock-Spooked

The prolific Brit released his 23rd solo record in the last 23 years. If adjectives are necessary, he could wear the tired “prolific” as a crown. On this latest offering, Hitchcock teams with Americans David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, and this lends an interesting Americana vibe to the usual quirkiness of a Hitchcock release.

With an ode to his TV on “Television”, to the somber “Creeped Out”, this disc is an interesting departure for Hitchcock. Older fans will enjoy, new fans of his singer/songwriter efforts might enjoy the addition of Welch on vocals.

There are a handful of artists that when you find out they have a new disc, you rush out to pick it up. The above-mentioned Neil Young comes to mind, as does Dylan, and I’d add Hitchcock to my list.

Black Forest/Black Sea-Forcefields & Constellations

2004 began my foray into post-rock, a broad category that allows rock musicians the opportunity to embrace elements that go beyond the standard rock structures. There is no definitive “sound” in this category and it is the perfect vehicle for the debris-strewn, postmodern, cultural wasteland we inhabit.

BF/BS are a perfect interjection of beauty and sparseness in an age of information overload and screaming talk show hosts. At times stark and hypnotic, at other times melodic and percussive in an ambient sort of way, BF/BS are a great addition to your music catalog, tailor-made for those snowy winter days, curled up with a book in front of the fire. The song “Tangent Universe” comes to mind here.

Without becoming too hyperbolic, BF/BS has become a soundtrack of hope for me in an otherwise ugly and hopeless world.

Ray Charles LaMontagne-Trouble

This guy’s bio is the stuff of legends-shoe shop worker who wakes up one morning to Stephen Stills’ “Tree Top Flyer” on clock radio; calls in sick from work because he needs to find out who the song is by and that he feels called to a life of music; quits job, builds cabin in the woods without electricity and begins teaching himself guitar and writing songs; word gets out about his music and he is flown to Los Angeles where he’s signed to record deal.

If you’ve never heard LaMontagne’s music, run right out and get the record before he becomes a household name. Singing about gritty, slice-of-life vignettes about society’s lesser lights, LaMontagne has one of those immediately recognizable voices.

Trouble is the real deal with cuts like “Jolene” and “Narrow Escape” giving you lyrics you can experience and almost sense the smells and see the spilled blood of lives gone into the ditch.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The toughest of competition

Since we are on the topic of Time’s choice for person of the year, here were some of Herr Bush’s competitors:

Nancy and Ron Reagan: Oh, how precious—Nancy and Ronnie—together again; In all seriousness, I do respect Mrs. Reagan for her outspoken support for stem-cell research, it’s just hard for me to overlook the fact that she was married to our worst President prior to our current one.

Martha Stewart: Now here’s a person that’s hard to overlook when one is nominationg movers and shakers who changed their world. I mean, where would we be without her award-winning tips on “How to Spruce up That Ugly Jail Cell”, “Ways to Add Pep and Zing to That Bland Prison Diet”, as well as the essential “Warding Off Your Cellmate’s Amorous Advances Without Hurting Her Feelings”?

Rick Warren: Since 2004 seems to be “The Year of Jesus”, what list of influential people would be complete without a preacher man? Warren brings new meaning to the term, “religious hucksterism” with his shallow, but bestselling “The Profit-Driven Life”. Like most modern day religious leaders, Warren manages to take the teachings of Jesus concerning self-sacrifice, concern for the poor, and humility, and turn them into a screed for free-market capitalism.

Desperate Housewives: All I have to say about this entry is, WTF!! These bimbos make my argument against television so much more striking.

A meaningful award

So many of the awards being presented on the world’s stage mean little or nothing to the rest of us who work, sweat, and toil each and every day. One that quickly comes to mind is Time’s meaningless and superficial “Person of the Year” being awarded to an international war criminal such as George Bush.

Occasionally however, someone is recognized with an award, by a recognizing body, that is worthy and deserved—a person who truly has done something significant and exemplary—and we should all sit up and take notice.

Wangari Matthai is Kenya’s vice minister of the environment. The 64-year-old biologist has been a grassroots activist for environmental causes most of her life. Matthai heads up Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, which pays poor Kenyan women to plant three trees per year. Since it’s inception in the late-1970’s, over 30 million trees have been planted.

Through its program, Green Belt provides a small amount of compensation to these poor women after the tree has received the important nurturance and protection it needs to survive. In addition, education about birth control is a component of the program, which addresses issues of overpopulation. As a result of this program, previously ravished forests are replenished, as well as the inherent global environmental benefits brought about through photosynthesis, with the trees absorbing carbon dioxide, and off-setting greenhouse gas emissions from rich industrial nations like the United States.

For her efforts at building sustainable communities of change, Wangari was honored with the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

Here’s to more meaningful awards being given to women like Wangari, who represent a new paradigm of hope and change for our world, versus men like Bush, who wallow in a paradigm from the old world, giving us death, disease, and destruction.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Giving them cartoons

I sense that my attempts to promote reading and last night's sermonette on Advent were not widely (or even wildly) received.

I'm somewhat frustrated today (as I have been for the past week) by the grind of writing and the the holidays, as well as the book. Sometimes it all seems bigger than I'm capable of.

While I don't think I'm the world's greatest writer, I feel that I've written some solid content for much of the past year. A couple of articles that I've written have been excellent. Despite that, I continue to wallow in relative obscurity.

One particular article I was especially proud of is my article, In Hadlock's Shadow that I wrote for The Portland Pigeon (sorry, no website) back in July. Unfortunately, few people saw this investigative piece, although it did become the springboard for my book. Meanwhile, I struggle with maintaining any consistency on the freelancing side. Most of the dailies "throw me a bone" from time to time, allowing me a feature story, but those are few and far between. Face Magazine, which I've been writing for and enjoying for the past couple of months, has seen its editor Paul Woodfin leave the magazine after five years. Woodfin, a classy guy and appreciative of writing talent, has decided to pursue something else. Now I have to prove myself afresh to a new editor who doesn't seem particularly receptive to my writing.

I've received responses from a handful of readers and for them, I'm grateful. Overall however, I'm feeling terribly obscure and neglected.

Well, enough wallowing in my own self-pity for today. Since I don't feel like writing anything requiring much thought, I'll leave you with cartoons.

Oh, and I also love Boondocks!

Monday, December 20, 2004

The Advent Season

During this time of Advent, our thoughts occasionally turn to the deeper meanings of the season. In the midst of all the superficial colorings that the modern celebration of consumption we call Christmas has become, we catch glimpses of the vital spirit that at one time radiated from a manger 2,000 years ago.

Whether one believes the ancient story, or accepts it as mythology, there are certain truths that emanate from it that still informs our season with a meaning much deeper than the mere materialistic crassness that has come to permeate our modern celebration of this winter holiday.

The longing for redemption is a common theme in much of our religion, literature, movies and other aspects of our culture. Even as a person who no longer has a belief in traditional understandings of western religion, there is a part of me that gravitates to the redemption story inherent in this Advent season.

For instance, the Gospel of Matthew has John the Baptist, appearing in the wilderness and uttering his wellknown refrain, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) According to this prophetic preacher who was later martyred, repentance was central to his understanding of the first Advent. What exactly is John getting at? What do we have to repent of?

In an informative and eye-opening book called Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, William Stringfellow, the Harvard educated lawyer, social critic and essayist, who spent a good portion of his life living a life of voluntary poverty, opines that in accordance with a more traditional rendering of the gospels, the character of this first Advent is radically political. It’s only due to the illiteracy of our current crop of right-wing civil religionists and church folk that this topic has been allowed to be preempted and usurped by the hucksters seeking to use Christ’s coming for their own personal and political capital.

As Stringfellow wrote, “The pioneer Christians, beleaguered as they were because of their insight, knew the message of both Advents is political. That message is that in the coming of Jesus Christ, the nations and the principalities and the rulers are judged in the Word of God.”

Later John is pressed to show the meaning of this repentance; his response is, “Bear fruits that befit repentance.”

If you take some time and read Luke 1:52-54, the politics of both Advents is once more emphasized.

I set all that up to say this; we have a leader who has been shameless in seizing upon his supposed faith in the Jesus of the First Advent. His followers, predominantly members of the illiterate portion of the church that Stringfellow made reference to, are also fixated on that First Advent, ignorant of the Second Advent that is inexorably tied to it. One cannot claim the first Advent without being cognizant of the Second Advent.

What is the significance of the Second Advent? Referring back to the passage in Luke, we see a God who will rein judgment down on the types of behavior that is being practiced by our current administration.

Here are but a few examples of the types of behavior that the Second Advent will judge:

-1.3 million more Americans fell below the poverty line; total Americans living in poverty—36 million.

-with heating costs projected to rise 24% this winter, our compassionate President, along with the other compassionate followers of Jesus have increased funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program by just $164 million, less than what is needed to cover the expected 24 % increase in home heating costs. In his 2002 fiscal year budget, compassionate conservative Bush tried to cut HEAP funding by $300 million; this despite higher unemployment rates and a colder winter.

-under Bush’s compassionate economic policies, median household incomes fell three consecutive years, from 2000-2003.

-our compassionately Christian President has presided over the greatest loss of jobs since Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression.

-the numbers of Americans without health insurance increased nearly six million people to its current number of 45 million.

-Section 8 housing vouchers, which allow 2 million low-income Americans to keep a roof over their heads and maintain some sense of dignity, has seen allotments from the Federal Government lag behind demand. President Bush, who has never had to worry about a roof over his head, continues his efforts to cut benefits to 60,000 Americans depending on the vouchers for housing.

As Jesus clearly stated in the Gospels, “By their fruit (good works) you will recognize them (as my followers)” (Matthew 7:16, 20)

Turning off the tube

I watch little or no television. When I do watch it, I usually tune to C-Span and their various policy-related programming. I’m not sure what the exact quote is, or who said it, but there is an adage that people who are productive and get things done, don’t watch much television.

Occasionally, some program catches my fancy and I’ll watch a number of episodes of it, usually once it’s in syndication on a cable channel—West Wing was the last program that I watched regularly, but I can tell I’ve grown tired of it because I only watch an episode here and there—they are all repeats to me now, anyway. As for the current season, I’ve lost interest with all the character defections.

I wasn’t always so austere in my television viewing. At one time, I would come home from work, eat dinner, and plunk myself down in front to the television for three hours before bed. During that time, I rarely read and when I did, it was usually magazines, and occasionally, I’d plow through a book, but it would take several weeks and I rarely finished it.

These days, I’ve committed to reading as much as I can when I’m not writing, so there isn’t a lot of room for television in my life. I’m not sure how many books a year I’ve read over the past couple of years, but I’m sure I average two to three books per month. Granted, I may not always read them from front to back, as some books are better read in sections, but I do draw key points from them. As a result of this reading, I’ve been able to fill in a lot of holes in my knowledge about politics, religion, economics, and other topics that I was grossly uninformed about.

It is in that context that my occasional forays into network television inevitably bring such visceral reactions—as in, “how the hell do people watch 29 hours of this shit a week!” Case in point—my burning the candle at both ends finally caught up with me yesterday, as I woke up with a pounding headache and flu symptoms. As much as I ply my constitution with herbal teas, supplements, and vitamins, nothing replaces adequate rest for maintaining a healthy immune system. As a result of feeling lousy, my head felt too clouded to read much of anything. Instead, I watched a couple of hours of bad television in the afternoon. From being treated to People’s profile of LL Cool J, to some other infomercial about Britney Spears and her difficult life of fame, it’s not hard for me to understand why most Americans have become so stupid, or “dumbed down”, as commentators more kindly say. In hindsight, I probably should have just left the squawkbox off entirely, but in my weakened state, I succumbed to old habits.

I realized that after only two hours of this programming, my head was filled with absolute junk and rubble that served absolutely no purpose, at least from the standpoint of developing my intellect. It did expose me to countless commercials and pitches for the products that marketers pitch to consumers, however.

I won’t go as far as some and condemn all television—it certainly has its redeeming features—unfortunately, most of it is absolute dross, so limiting television input would seem like a positive thing.

You don’t have to cut out television entirely; cutting just one hour per day of television viewing from your life and replacing it with some good reading material could prove beneficial in many ways. A good book from the library could captivate you and possibly, you might become so engrossed, that you’ll leave the television off entirely. Reading is a habit like any other (including watching television). Taking time to cultivate this habit will reward you with a reduction from sensory overload, but also open up an entire new area of vitality in your brain. The more you read, the more you tend to learn about the world. The more that you know about your world, the less likely you are to be manipulated by the media, marketers, or the Machiavellian con men currently running our government.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Liberal media, my ass!

So tell me once again, why I'm not as qualified as those journalistic hacks with their degrees from prestigious places of higher education to comment on subjects such as Social Security?

Speaking of Social Security, here are the highlights of the journalistic buffoonery taking place this past week concerning the President's ill-concieved plan to privitize it.

Tim Russert--He of "Meet the Press" fame and holder of 22 honorary doctorates from various American colleges and universities to name but a few of his various awards. Russert, who rarely misses the opportunity to lob a "softball" of a question towards his subjects, has become a friend of Republicans in trouble. Russert is becoming the Sunday morning equivalent of Larry King.

Brit Hume--plays an objective journalist on Fox News and serves as their managing editor and chief Washington correspondant. Hume is often seen cheerleading Republican proposals on tax breaks for the wealthy and President Bush's war in Iraq. Takes the label "hack" to new heights (or lows, depending on your perspective/ideology).

Chris Matthews--frequently attempts to imitate an "old school" yellow-dog Democrat, with his faux pugnaciousness. Like most mainstream news personalities, he toes his network's corporate line, because he would find it difficult to live on anything less than his seven figure salary.

CBS Evening News--One of the "dinosaurs" of TV news, rarely, if ever offers viewers anything that deviates from the network's corporate talking points.

Not to dispair, however. Paul Krugman, an economist, who actually does a great job as a true journalist lets us in on a few dirty little secrets concerning Mr. Bush and his investment industry friends. Not to mention the retirees who are primed for getting screwed by the plan.

Stay tuned; it's sure to get worse, before it gets better, if it ever does so.

The truth about Social Security

As I touched on briefly yesterday, one of President Bush's major campaign proposals was the privitization of Social Security. During a good portion of the closing days of his campaign, the President told Americans the lie that Social Security was in trouble and that only he, God's appointed potentate, could save it.

President Bush has made it a practice to foist his Ponzi schemes on the unsuspecting and gullible American electorate. From his under-funded No-Child-Left-Behind, gutting of important environmental safeguards, the war in Iraq, to his disastrous tax cuts for the wealthy, this president has been anything but a visionary leader. At times, he's appeared more like the pied-piper leading America's working class off the proverbial cliff!

For the uninitiated, let's just take a brief look at Social Security. It was created by the Roosevelt Administration in 1935 as part of the New Deal. The amount of benefits in retirement is typically based on the total amount of accumulated Social Security Income over a beneficiary's working career. Basically, the amount of taxes taken out of your paycheck, matched by your employer's contribution.

Social Security's official name is Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance, or (OASDI). It is intended to be an insurance program for workers who are disabled, retired, or who die prematurely. It is there to provide worker's families from potential loss of income.

By offering basic benefits, SSI helps retired workers, disabled workers, or the survivors of deceased workers to stay out of poverty. In 2000, 40 percent more households over the age of 65, including almost 33 percent of elderly Hispanics, would have been living in poverty if not for Social Security.

Social Security's benefits provide only a basic minimum. The average monthly benefit was $851.40 in 2002.

So, is Social Security in trouble and in need of our fearless leader's helping hand? Well, if you read some of the articles by the press, they would lead you to believe than none of us currently working will see a dime of benefit come retirement time. Our sycophantic journalistic corps, rather than researching the issue (as I'm sure they were taught at Columbia, NYU, or the other bastions of journalistic preparation), have consistently relied on the hand-feeding of members of the administration for their background to stories on SSI. As a result, the average American has come to believe that something drastic needs to be done to save our retirements--like privitization.

Story after story, news feature after news feature have scared Americans into believing that "Social Security is going's coming apart at the seams", or assigned a date; usually 2042, as the year that "Social Security will go broke."

Since Americans are a trusting people, of course they are going to be concerned when they are constantly told by our fawning press that Social Security is messed up and needs some fixin'.

In point of fact however, Social Security is actually doing just fine. What? How could that be? Our President says "it broke and need fixin'", so we need to listen to El Bushco, right?

Who's right about Social Security--those in the President's camp, who say it's going bankrupt in 2029, or 2042, or those who say it's fine and needs little or any tinkering to remain solvent?

Consider these facts:

For now, Social Security is taking in more through the payroll tax than it is paying out in benefits. Lots more!

In 2003, income to the Social Security trust fund, including interest earned on the accumulated surplus, totaled $632 billion. Outlays, including administrative expenses, were $479 billion. That left an annual surplus of $153 billion, or about four months worth of benefits. At the end of the year, the trust fund had more than $1.5 trillion — more than three years' worth of benefits. Baby boomers, who will start to become eligible for partial benefits in 2008 and full benefits in 2012, are about to turn this equation on its head.

Today there are 3.3 workers for each retiree; by 2040, there will be 2. Social Security's board of trustees — three federal officials and three knowledgeable private citizens — estimate that benefits will overtake revenue in 2018. The program will be able to pay scheduled benefits only by drawing down its surplus. In 2042, the trustees estimate, Social Security will become "insolvent." The surplus will be exhausted, and annual payroll tax revenue will be the only source of cash. It will be enough to pay only about three-fourths of promised benefits. Neither benefit levels nor taxes will be the same then as they are today. Benefits rise annually with price inflation; initial benefits are determined by wage history. Wages earned early in the recipient's career are adjusted for subsequent inflation. But this adjustment is calculated by using wage inflation, not price inflation. Wages have outpaced prices over the years, and wage growth between now and 2042 is projected to exceed price growth by more than 25%. So, even if Congress did not touch Social Security's benefit formula through 2042, a 25% benefit cut when the surplus ran out would still leave benefits slightly higher than they were now — even after adjusting for price inflation. That, according to opponents of private accounts, is not exactly a formula for disaster. On the revenue side of the ledger, the Social Security payroll tax rate — 6.2%, matched by an equal tax on the employer — has not changed since 1990. But the maximum wage on which the tax is levied, $87,900 in 2004, rises annually with wage inflation.

From Joel Havemann's article in the Los Angeles Times, "Many Democrats accuse Republicans of intentionally making Social Security's future look bleaker than it is so that they can more easily sell their privatization proposals. The Republican agenda, they say, is more ideological than financial: the promotion of Bush's 'ownership society'."

According to Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, there is "an incredible misunderstanding of the basic problem. The public thinks the program will disappear in 10 to 20 years."

The reality?

According to Baker, an analyst who opposes private accounts, "if Congress acted now, it could guarantee Social Security's solvency for the next 75 years with a tax increase of less than one-quarter the size of the one enacted in the 1980s."

That doesn't sound like a crisis--it sounds like an opportunity for Congress to do their job and stop playing around with one of the best and most beneficial programs of our social safety net.

Looking to the north

Americans are enamoured by the sound of our own voices. Like the proverbial single hand clapping, many Americans consider themselves the be all and end all when it comes to defining western civilization.

In reality, we are a boorish, uncultured, violent and imperialistic blight on the rest of the world. Case in point? Consider the comparison to Canada, our naughty neighbor to the north. As Mark Morford writes in Wednesday's San Franicsco Gate, "It's getting more confusing by the minute, isn't it? I mean, Canada now has legal medical pot and legal gay marriage and universal health care and no known terrorist enemies and a relatively successful multiparty political system. They also have, according to U.N.'s Human Development Index, one of the highest qualities of life in the world. All coupled with a dramatically reduced rate of gun violence and far better gun-control legislation than the U.S., despite having the exact same per capita rate of gun ownership and gun-sport enthusiasm. "

Morford's column referenced Canada's high court ruling which opened the door to legalizing gay marriage in Canada-true north, strong and free.

Unlike our own fundamentalist president, Canada's Prime Minister is an open-minded man, recognizing the dignity in all people, regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation. Take for instance that Prime Minister Paul Martin said his government will introduce a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Parliament after the Christmas holidays. He has told his Cabinet ministers that they must vote for the bill to retain their posts. The bill is likely to get the 155 votes it needs for passage in the 308-seat House of Commons, advocates on both sides of the issue say. Canada would become the third country -- joining Belgium and the Netherlands -- to legalize same-sex marriage. Interestingly, both of these other gay-friendly countries are known for their exceptional standards of living, as well as universal health care.

When it comes to leading the world in areas that matter; human rights, tolerance, and access to a better standard of living, arrogant America could take a few lessons from countries that lead by example. Like Canada!

As Morford says about Canada, "...they simply beat us senseless on the whole open-minded, progressive thing. Kicked our flag-wavin' butts. Trounced our egomaniacal self-righteous selves and made the red states look even more foolish and backward than the whole world already knows them to be. "

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Getting squeezed by rising prices

In yesterday’s Portland Press Herald, the front page headline was about our public utility, Central Maine Power Company, raising its rates 17 percent in March.

Certainly, the cost of producing electricity has gone up due to increases in the price of oil and other related fuels. However, a rate hike of this magnitude is substantial. It has the greatest impact on those on the margins of society and others on fixed-incomes, not to mention that it adds more strain to the already cost-burdened middle-class homeowner.

First of all, for the purposes of public disclosure, I want my readers to know that I did work for 10 years in the power industry, for CMP. Having disclosed that, I’m not real happy about a rate hike on top of all the other increased costs consumers are facing. During the past three months, the cost of fuel, food and a number of other consumer goods have increased. Meanwhile, wages remain stagnant, so working class people are falling further behind in the Bush administration’s “robust” economy.

Like other segments of the utility sector, electricity generation has gone through a period of deregulation. The current version of CMP isn’t anything like the utility I left in 1995. Much of the control of the company has shifted and while still regulated by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, most of the decisions are made by out of state executives.

Deregulation, along with privatization are two of the free-market schemes frequently trotted out by conservatives as panaceas to all of our price concerns. Constantly, conservatives tell us if we just let the market set prices, consumers will be the beneficiaries of greater efficiencies and lower prices. In reality, this hasn’t happened in any of the areas where deregulation has been allowed. From the breakup of Ma Bell and the telecommunications industry, to the deregulation of the airline industry, the free market has done nothing that would remotely benefit consumers. While the case could be made that deregulation has given us lower airline fares, in reality, it’s severely weakened the major players in the industry, forcing the government to step in and subsidize an essential part of the country’s transportation mix. In essence, John and Jane Q. Public are subsidizing those lower fares with our taxes, which never seem to get lower.

Regardless of whether or not deregulation and privatization have worked, the President is determined to do his damn well best to privatize Social Security next. Despite the fact that its demise and disappearance is a myth, the administration, with the backing of a right-wing majority in Congress, is aggressively pursuing this plan. Like all schemes, this one is another recipe for disaster and will cripple many hard-working Americans when they are ready to retire.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Blogging, accuracy, community

Blogging is an exciting and very immediate form of communication. It’s obviously different than the writing that one does for magazines, newspapers and other publications due to the lack of editorial input and control. This can be both good and bad. Good in the sense that the lack of constraint can promote freshness and an edge that many mainstream media sources lack. However, because of the lack of checks, inaccurate information can be transmitted.

I feel fortunate to have some dedicated readers of my writing and they occasionally “let me have it” when I post something that they think is bogus, inaccurate, or even pompous.

In my haste to write yesterday’s American Acquiescence, I inaccurately made the connection between television viewing and the increases in the rates of ADD/ADHD. When I wrote, “we’ve decided that we’ll plop our kids in front of the television six to eight hours per day and then, we wonder why he/she has attention deficit disorders and can’t read,” I incorrectly made the correlation between plunking kids in front of the television with incidences of ADD and ADHD in our country.

One of my readers (who also happens to be a dear friend), informed me that there is no connection whatsoever. Because I wasn't as informed as I should have been on the subject, I did in fact do a bit of reading on the subject last night, and I now am better informed about it. While excessive television viewing is detrimental and even hazardous to children, it hasn't been determined to be a direct cause of ADD, or ADHD. There is some evidence however, that seems to indicate some link between television viewing and and increased incidences of hyperactivity, impulsiveness and difficulty concentrating. According to a study done by the American Academy of Pediatrics, "Every added hour of watching TV increased a child's odds of having attention problems by about 10%. Kids watching about three hours a day were 30% more likely to have attention trouble than those viewing no TV." While the researchers accounted for many factors beside television that might predict problems concentrating, the fact that the TV-attention link remained is reason to be concerned about the negative effects of young children's exposure to excessive television.

This brings me back to blogging as a form of communication. The type of writing that I put up on my blog is closest to types of journalism and op ed writing than anything else. While I certainly don’t have the editorial constraints that someone at the NY Times or even the Peoria Journal Star might have, I do fact check what I put up and do my darndest to link information in an attempt to be factual and accurate. Even with print media and television, mistakes, inaccuracies and outright lies are disseminated, despite the supposed editorial checks and balances. Just ask Dan Rather about that one!

Unlike mainstream media, bloggers can use reader feedback to create an immediacy in the area of accurancy that is comporable to the immediacy of the content generation.

This raises an interesting point about the community aspects of the blogosphere. Because a writer will attract a group of regular and semi-regular readers to his/her site, a certain expectation is created. The writer feels a sense of urgency to write quality material, at least occasionally. The readers give feedback via email, or comments. BTW, don’t be shy about using the comments feature in order to provide feedback on what I write. You can post anonymously if you don’t have an account with Blogger. Or, you can register and post by name.

All of this creates the type of give and take that the best blogs possess. I don’t claim to be a world-class writer, or even blogger at this point. I do offer honesty, effort, as well as a commitment to being accurate, however. To be anything else defeats the purpose of coming here and sharing my thoughts and news of the world with you.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Conspicuous consumption

I found this at Asfo_Del's blog, Living on Less; she found it at Infoshop News. The quote pretty well sums up my feelings about the narcissism that shrouds America in a fog of self-indulgence.

"To the owner of the Ford Excursion who implores us to "Support Our Troops" I say this: 'You, sir (or madam), are a monumental jackass. At this moment, American troops are risking their lives to protect your inalienable right to live your life in an impenetrable fog of selfishness and stupidity....' I sometimes wonder if anything short of dynamite can shatter your complacent fantasy that the Iraq war is about bringing democracy to the Middle East. The truth is that every Arab from Casablanca to Khartoum could be cutting his brother's throat, and yet this would remain a matter of indifference to our government if not for the need to ensure that you will be able to fill your Excursion with cheap gasoline. To expect others to sacrifice everything for you, while advertising by your own behavior that you will sacrifice exactly nothing for them, is the height of political and social immorality. And to do so while claiming your political views are an expression of "moral values" is an obscene joke."

American acquiescence

My wife and I watched the documentary, Super Size Me this weekend. In this film, producer/director Morgan Spurlock becomes the equivalent of a human guinea pig, ingesting McDonald’s food for 30 days.

To say the results are scary would be an understatement. From the rapid weight gain and elevated cholesterol levels in his blood, to the other physical changes occurring in his body, Spurlock shows the Russian Roulette that Americans are playing by consuming unhealthy food.

Watching this movie over the weekend, coupled with an excellent article by Wendell Berry in Orion Magazine, made me realize afresh how corporate culture is destroying the America that I grew up in.

Berry, farmer, writer, poet and essayist, is one of America’s prophetic voices. Crying out like the biblical Elijah, Berry has pointed out that the death of our rural towns and areas of our country signal the death of our unique culture. Berry continues to sound the call for ordinary people to take their communities back from the greedy interlopers ensconced in the corporate suites.

In Spurlock’s documentary, he made the connection between the increase in obesity and the increase in the consumption of fast food, particularly the McDonald’s variety. As obesity has increased, so have the subsequent diseases accompanying it. Heart disease, stroke, hypertension—all of these have increased mortality rates.

What Americans have done is to take part in a Faustian pact with the devil—we’ve traded our small town centers for Wal-Mart and its Chinese merchandise (junk?). We’ve decided that rather than cook our own foods, that are healthier for us, we’ll consume foods laden with sodium, preservatives and saturated fat. We’ve decided that we’ll plop our kids in front of the television six to eight hours per day and then, we wonder why he/she has attention deficit disorders and can’t read.

We’ve spent the past two years bombing the hell out of innocent civilians and decimating their country in Iraq, yet we don’t give two shits about the enemies within our own gates. Rather than railing against homosexuality, bare breasted singers, and profanity in our rock lyrics, maybe the moral purveyors could focus on the real enemies of the people before it’s too late (if it isn’t already?).

It always amazes me how religious leaders, particularly of the conservative stripe, spend the majority of their time attacking the sins of “the flesh”. They have little compunction at all however about not attacking greed, avarice and the havoc foisted upon Americans by the corporate warlords. They continue to do what religious men have done throughout history—provide a cover for those in power to continue to exploit the rest of us.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Bill O'Reilly: Bully and hate-monger

Bill O’Reilly has a strong and devoted following. While O’Reilly claims he’s non-ideological, this is an obvious ruse to anyone who analyzes his nightly right-wing diatribes. With his prime time spot in Fox’s nightly lineup and an additional two hours of radio in many markets across the country, O’Reilly commands a sizeable audience.

While O’Relly dares to promote himself as an objective journalist, he actually is a demagogue—a rather ugly and vicious one at that. O’Reilly regularly attacks his guests on his nightly radio and television shows. Anyone willing to challenge O’Reilly, particularly the more intellectually adept guests, receive the harshest treatment.

Some would argue that this is all part of his persona to garner ratings and an audience. I would counter by saying that O’Reilly is a man who has spent his life bullying and intimidating people and getting away with it.

During the past year, I witnessed a particularly ugly exchange involving O’Reilly and Al Franken. Poor Molly Ivins was on a panel with O’Reilly and Franken to discuss their new books. Each one got about 20 minutes to discuss their works and apparently, O’Reilly thought Franken went on too long and that his subject matter, the lying liars in his book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, came a little too close to home for O’Reilly’s taste. For all of C-Span’s viewers, O’Reilly showed himself to be the thin-skinned bully that he really is. All 6’5” of his frame puffed itself up and he began yelling and pointing at Franken. Franken, who stands less than 6 feet, put on his best smart-aleck smirk, which just made O’Reilly crazier. I realized that day what a thug and intimidator this right-wing hate-monger really is. Poor Ivins did her best to try to mediate, but O’Reilly just kept on telling Franken to “shut up.” I seriously thought that the two might come to fisticuffs on live television.

Since then, O’Reilly has attacked the poor, blaming their lack of wealth on their laziness, regularly insulted intellectually superior members of the media for their criticism of President Bush and the war in Iraq, and then, sexually harassed a co-worker (who he consequently tried to intimidate into silence). Now O’Reilly is focusing his hate and vitriol at both Media Matters and Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti Defamation League. Their crimes? Daring to take O’Reilly to task for the remarks he made on his December 3 Radio Factor about Christmas to a caller during the program.

A caller on the December 3 Radio Factor objected to "Christmas going into schools" and explained that he "grew up with a resentment because I felt that people were trying to convert me to Christianity," O'Reilly informed him that the United States is "a predominantly Christian nation" and declared, "if you are really offended, you gotta go to Israel then." O'Reilly labeled the caller's concerns "an affront to the majority," insisting that "the majority can be insulted too." In his letter protesting the comments, Foxman wrote, among other things, that O'Reilly's comment "plays into one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards about Jews, that they are not full citizens of a country and are not entitled to all of the rights afforded to the majority."

The ever-indignant O’Reilly of course resorted to his usual shtick whenever anyone questions his integrity—lashing out and impugning the character of his attackers. O’Reilly, the self-appointed champion of Joe-sixpack and the guardianof all things virtuous, must annihilate any enemies. Agreeing to disagree wouldn’t be subtle enough for the self-declared protector of the journalistic profession.

While O’Reilly claims he was quoted out of context, it is in the full context provided by Media Matters that one can see the ugly ideology of people like him.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Jesus: Too controversial for executives

There are a handful of columnists and op ed writers that I never fail to read. While a good op ed writer will pen columns that make you think, some rise above the pack and consistently produce superior writing. Pulitzer prize-winning op ed columnist Leonard Pitts occupies the upper echelons of opinion writing. Week in and week out, Pitts challenges me, makes me laugh, makes me angry, but best of all—he makes me think—and thinking gets harder and harder each day for a variety of reasons, the least of which is the pervasive nature American groupthink.

You can have your Cal Thomas columns, as well as George Will; these men are nothing but apologists for the masters in the corporate suites. I’ll take Pitts, not because he’s some lackey for the left, but a writer who is gifted enough to transcend ideology.

His most recent column, “Church’s Call For Unity Turns Off Networks” is another that doesn't disappoint. Writing about his denomination, the very open and affirming United Church of Christ (UCC), Pitts is perplexed about a commercial offered by the UCC that was refused airing by the two of the major three networks—NBC and CBS have refused to accept if for airing. CBS cites that it considers the spot “advocacy advertising” and it violates their “long-standing policy” against such advertising. Ah, the moral-crusading corporate media watchdogs. Makes you get all warm and fuzzy inside.

Both of these corporate entities deemed the ad too controversial to air. Controversial? Here’s the ad: Two bouncers working a rope line in front of a church. They turn away a gay couple and what appears to be a Hispanic man and a black girl. A white family is allowed to pass. The text onscreen says, ''Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we.'' A narrator closes the ad, speaking over a montage of old people, white people, black people, Hispanic people, lesbian people, human people.

As Pitts muses in his column, “I mean, work with me here. The maggot eaters of Fear Factor are evidently OK to broadcast. Janet Jackson's nipple somehow makes it to the air. Two half-naked vixens can even wrestle in a pool, arguing over whether their beer tastes great or is less filling. But a commercial that says only that God's love includes us all is too controversial to show?!”

Controversial indeed! I’ll add to Pitts thoughts that I saw an extremely racy ad for Victoria’s secret that bordered on the pornographic during prime time last night. I got to leave early from work due to lack of orders, so I came home, made my dinner and was watching a Seinfeld re-run on TBS when the ad appeared. Yes, controversial only when the executives deem it so.

One other point I want to make and I’ll be on my way; Pitts mentions a study that indicates that many people no longer attend church due to being “angry and alienated.” I confess to experiencing both of these emotions while attending denominational churches, plus several others. It seems logical that the one place that should feel inclusive is church—I mean Xian denominations claim to be following the message of Jesus. Now if Jesus was one thing, it would be inclusive. How else do you explain his embracing the outcasts of his day—the lepers, prostitutes, the Samarian woman at the well—all of which got him hated and eventually killed, by the hypocrites of his day.

Here’s Pitts column in its entirety.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Christmas cheer

Working a seasonal job has been good for me. The obvious benefits go beyond the economic, although I’m not downplaying that one. As a struggling writer (aren’t we all?), financial issues are often the most common reason for the many who throw in the towel.

The real benefit is seeing firsthand what most American workers experience in the new economy touted by George Bush and his economic supply-side friends. Trickle-down economics doesn’t offer much more than a few crumbs from the table of the wealthy and privileged.

My seasonal call center job pays $10 and change, which is standard for this type of occupation in my area of the country. As our state has seen manufacturing jobs leave in droves, we have become a haven for companies wanting to locate their phone centers here in order to tap an able labor force willing to work for substandard wages. This phenomenon is not the fault of the workers—where does one go in a state where most jobs pay $8-$10 per hours? Most of the people I went through training with are working here as a second job. That means most of us are working 70-80 hours per week over this 6-week gig. It gives me a new appreciation of the term, "working poor."

Within a five minute walk from where I sit in my cubicle under artificial lighting and stale re-circulated air, thousands of shoe shop workers once toiled. Receiving a wage that allowed them to access part of the American Dream, these workers built this gritty working-class city of 40,000 into a community with character. Many of these French-Canadians took pride in their town. During the 1960’s and even early 1970’s, the downtown was filled with department stores and other locally-owned retail establishments. At one time, you could even ride the local bus line from my hometown 10 miles away.

When I was a boy of seven or eight, my grandmother used to take me on the bus with her and we’d go shopping. She’d take me to lunch at Woolworth’s where I’d have a grilled hot dog, french fries (we didn’t call them liberty fries then!!) and even an ice cream cone. I can still picture my Nana counting out change from her purse. With her peasant dress, large handbag that had everything, this fire-plug of a German immigrant provided her grandson with many memories that today’s kids will never experience.

I often express frustration at our media, for lacking the courage and drive to write stories about real Americans and their lives. What occurs to me as I battle the tiredness infusing my back and arms from burning the candle at both ends is that many journalists have achieved a level of comfort that prevents them from biting the hand providing it. A case in point is the fluff piece that my usually solid local paper carried about the call center where I work. There was little or nothing in the article that would force a reader to confront the reality of these jobs and how they ultimately do little to build the local economy. What they do provide is access to cheap labor for a local company that used to have more integrity. Still riding on the reputation of its founder, the flatlanders who now run the company offer empty corporate platitudes to their workers. While the article spoke of the “million dollar hours” that these phone centers ring up, there was no mention that the workers providing the modern day equivalent of assembly line labor are treated to tootsie rolls, candy bars and $35 Christmas bonuses.

A journalist with any integrity would have written something other than an article that was nothing more than PR copy that could have come directly from the company’s marketing department.

As a freelance writer, I often am denied the opportunity to write these types of hard-hitting pieces, primarily because I don’t have a journalism degree following my name. What I’m finding out, the further I go down this rabbit trail called writing is that journalism school doesn’t teach you how to write. What it does is teach you to become a subservient employee who rarely challenges the status quo set by the editors.

If journalism is ever going to become the hard-hitting, muckraking domain of men like H.L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, Studs Terkel and others again, it needs to get out of the classroom and back into the remaining factories and sweat shops and see how real Americans live, work, and die.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Forgetting the tide

It's easy this time of year to get caught up in the day-to-day routines of work, family and shopping for Christmas.

For the past week, I've found it comforting to tune out the "world" and politics. I've welcomed the brief respite from the drumbeat of bad news and corporate power grabs. Whether one wants to ignore them or not however, the powerful never sleep.

President Bush just nominated a pro-agribusiness former governor to head up the department of Agriculture. As governor of Nebraska, Johanns worked persistently to undermine a law, passed by a citizen initiative in 1982, that protects family farmers in Nebraska by banning most corporate agriculture. President Bush, as he is want to do, claims one thing while knowing full well it is a bold-faced lie. About Johanns, Bush called him " faithful friend of America's farmers and ranchers". With friends like that......

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm reading Trudy Chambers Price's book, The Cows Are Out! Two Decades on a Maine Dairy Farm. It's men like Johanns who drove Trudy and her husband out of farming. They are the reason that in 1950, there were 4,950 dairy farms in Maine; today, there are less than 400! Just since 1989, almost 300 dairy farms have gone out of existence!! As these farms go out of production, so does the way of life that goes with it--a way of life that gave states like Maine their unique character.

When I look at people like Mike Johanns, George Bush, and the rest of his corporate marauders, I'm reminded of the beach when I was young. As a youngster, my sister and I would build elaborate sand castles that took hours to construct. No matter what we did, eventually, the tide rushed in--nothing we could do to divert the onrushing surf prevented it from pounding and flattening our handiwork. After a few passes of the surf, our castles were indistiguishable from the rest of the shoreline.

Corporate control is the powerful surf and the rest of us and our way of life is the sandcastle being pounded by the rush of sea.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Christmas shopping excursion

I should have known better; I should have realized how much I loathe Christmas shopping. Instead, I decided to venture out on Saturday morning, of all days.

Since I am working for a still unnamed catalog retailer, one of my few perks of employment is a hefty employee discount on their merchandise. While much of what they sell falls outside my qualifying parameters for merchandise (American-made or made by workers that are paid a living wage), there are a few things that they carry that I could purchase.

Badly in need of some Christmas cards to send out to friends and family, as well as a gazetteer and a gift certificate, I bravely made my way to my seasonal employer’s retail empire. This shopping mecca draws tourists far and wide to the small coastal community which has been irreparably altered to cater to this retailer.

Parking was my first challenge, but I felt fortunate when I found a parking space about one half mile away from the store at 10 o’clock. From there I managed to dodge fellow shoppers as they did their damned well best to try to run me over in search of their own parking spot.

Once in the store, I was confronted with a maze of shopping "zombies"—people that have apparently lost their abilities to orient themselves to their surroundings. You’ll be able to tell them by the confused expression on their faces as they whirl around in place looking high and low for god knows what. One particular woman, going up the wrong side of the stairwell, managed to cause a major traffic jam. This middle-aged woman, god love her, was straining to gallantly negotiate the final five stair treads to the top. Once she reached the 2nd floor riser, the crowd blew past her, nearly sweeping her aside like a river breaking through a levee. I’m still puzzled why she didn’t take the elevator—while I commend her spunk, mixing in a little aerobic exercise into her shopping day, this stairwell during a shopping rush hour may not have been the most appropriate locale for her newfound fitness regimen.

Fortunately for me, the location of the cards and gazetteer were in the same department and amazingly, not heavily populated. I quickly gathered my items and dashed for the first floor registers. I was amazed that there were only three people in the queuing area waiting for a cashier. Before I knew it, my items were bagged, my gift certificate purchased and in less than 30 minutes, I was back out to the parking lot where my vacated spot was quickly snatched by a car sitting five deep in the developing waiting line.

I was now bitten by the Christmas shopping bug. Infused with newfound confidence that I could do this, I was off to the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance book sale and author signing at The Portland Public Market.

If one has to do any shopping, this is the place to do it. The patrons have a more relaxed pace. I envision that this is how people may have shopped when open air markets and similar venues were part and parcel of urban landscapes. While there has been a trend recently to bring back the public market concept, many are gentrified and dressed up and lack a certain gritty authenticity of the markets of days gone by. Yet, even in their yuppified state, these offer a welcome respite from the sterile environs of the local mall, filled with corporate Christmas cheer and numbing holiday muzak.

I had a wonderful conversation with genial Maine writer and poet, Richard Foerster. As someone given more to writing prose than poetry, I was interested in his thoughts on the difference between the two. Like many writers, he enjoyed discussing his craft and sharing insights that I know will prove invaluable to me as I continue my life as a writer. I purchased Double Going, a book of his poems about coming to terms with family and the dynamics involved with that. Foerster graciously signed my book, and I was off to visit the downstairs vendor area of the market. It was here that I met a sausage-maker from my home town of Lisbon Falls. We talked about his craft, small town life and my newly-made sauerkraut curing in my basement. I promised to stop by and drop off a sample in the next few weeks.

It was now time to dash home and grab my gear and lunch and head off to work my eight hours on the telephones. The evening went well and I even got to go home early because our call volumes were down.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Small town America

I had my only day off yesterday that I’ll have for the next 10 days at my still to be unnamed catalog retailer where I’m working for Christmas. In the morning, I interviewed a former semi-pro and town team player from my former hometown, for my book, When Towns Had Teams.

I spent the morning with Stan Doughty, who played local baseball for 23 years. Doughty had been a tremendous player, who I got to see play when he was nearing the end of his playing career. Even at the age of 38, he was still a formidable hitter. Doughty was a high school teacher of mine at Lisbon High School, as well as being my athletic director for four years. Prior to my entering high school, he had coached the baseball team at Lisbon for 20 years. I remember advice he gave me when I was a 15 year old pitcher, playing for him during my first summer of American Legion baseball. I was a tall, lanky pitcher, but got the idea I could be cute with hitters and drop down on the side to righties. He told me that with my 6’4” height, I should come straight over the top. He obviously knew what he was talking about as I went on to win 20 games in my high school career with only one loss.

Each interview I’ve done has revealed new information about town team baseball. I’ve now spoken with over 20 various players from a by-gone era for my book. I feel very privileged that they’ve felt comfortable enough with me to open up and talk about an important, but often neglected part of their lives. I’m looking forward to being able to get this book out to people, as I think readers are going to be surprised and intrigued by the baseball that once existed in Maine’s various communities.

In the afternoon, my wife and I drove to the quaint little town of Damariscotta. This town, located on the Damariscotta River, which flows into the Atlantic, is bordered by the Great Salt Bay, a thriving wetland habitat that is unique to Maine. With its vibrant Main Street, including one of Maine’s best libraries and even a movie theater, the town is a great place to spend an afternoon enjoying a true small town. What’s nice about downtown is the number of locally-owned stores that this town possesses. One of the reasons for the vitality of some of the Midcoast downtowns like Bath, Damariscotta and Belfast is the lack of Wal-Mart stores in this area of the state. All three of these towns also have an old-fashioned department store that is owned by a Maine family. The Reny’s stores are fixtures in many of the more vibrant local downtown shopping areas. I am reminded of my youth when I go into one of the Reny’s stores, as department stores were part of the memories I have of growing up in the 1960’s and early 1970’s in Maine. The last few years, my wife and I have decided to forsake the malls and chain stores and have done our Christmas shopping in Bath, with its many great shops and stores, which also includes a Reny’s Department Store.

Probably the best part of my day was visiting Maine Coast Book Shop. With its welcoming, friendly atmosphere, large assortment of books, including many Maine writers, as well as a great cafĂ©, it is one of the main attractions in downtown Damariscotta. An independent bookstore that’s been part of the downtown for over 30 years, the staff are readers and writers themselves. As I was perusing the Maine author’s section of the store, the store's manager asked if I needed assistance. I told her I was looking at Maine books to get some ideas of the various publishers publishing books in the state. I told her I was in the process of writing my first book. She happened to have her own book on the shelves in front of me. The Cows Are Out! Two Decades on a Maine Dairy Farm by Trudy Chambers Price is a wonderful book about her 23 years on a Maine dairy farm. Capturing the never-ending work involved in farming, as well as the simple pleasures of life, it’s a great book for anyone wanting to know about Maine outside of yuppie enclaves like Portland or shopping ghettos like the Maine Mall or Freeport.

Price was very interested in my book and gave me some welcome advice regarding publishing. She told me she has been very happy with her publisher, Islandport Press. This is Price’s first book and it has sold out its first printing of 2,500 books in less than a year. It’s set to go to a second printing, which is excellent for a regional book.

Last night, I spent a couple of hours reading from my newly purchased book and found it so poignant and evocative. Dairy farming, like fishing, logging and other rural economic lifelines, is dying out in Maine. Reading Price’s book made me realize the special nature of life in rural America and how it’s all being swallowed up by our hyper-consumerism that is propelled by the corporate machine.

While places like Damariscotta still exist, I’m going to take advantage of visits to them in order to maintain my sanity in an increasingly insane world. Since I still haven’t perfected my time machine, I’ll settle for the next best thing—visiting people and places unspoiled by box stores, malls and rampant commercialization.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Blogging here; blogging there

One of the problems of having two blogs is duplication. While most of what I'm writing about on Words Matter is different than what I write about at my website, occasionally there will be some overlap. Today is an example of that.

Last night, while driving home from my shift on the phones at an unnamed catalog retailer, I caught NPR's Marketplace segment on a visionary program instituted by a CEO. While I'm often critical of the business community in their lack of concern for people over profits, this segment illustrated a concept that I've held onto, despite being told it doesn't hold true any longer--that you can still treat people fairly and with respect, while being profitable.

If y'all would be so kind and scoot over to my blog at my website, I'd be forever grateful. That will save me from double-blogging on this subject.