Saturday, December 31, 2005

Closing out the year

"No people can be ignorant and free"

"When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility."
--Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

[The above quotes came from Morris Berman's, The Twilight of American Culture (W.W. Norton, 2000)]

Reading is important for several reasons. It helps develop an ability to think and analyze ideas and obviously develops part of the brain that aid us in particular types of thinking. Anecdotally, I’d say that Americans lack an ability to think critically and our current societal structure, where our leader’s intelligence is suspect, seems to be a point in my favor. I’m sure the experts can tell us why reading is important. As a nation, I would guess that we are reading less now, than we did, say 50 to 75 years ago, although I might be wrong. Television, computers and other forms of entertainment make reading an unappealing option in the face of a culture that values entertainment over intellectual attainment and growth. I know some will take issue and point out that the death of the novel has been predicted for a long time and book sales continue to grow. I would counter with the knowledge that the books that are being mass-produced, are nowhere near as “deep” and challenging as the classics.

Having said that, I’d agree with writers like the late Neil Postman, and others like Morris Berman, who contend that we are getting dumber all the time. Television and the types of books foisted upon the public—shallow, new age treatises and self-help tomes—help contribute to the “dumbing down” of our culture.

I don’t know, on average, how many books per year Americans read. I found this, which indicates that for “light” readers, the number is on to five, per year. I apparently am a “frequent” reader, as I read between 12 and 49 during 2005. Maybe it’s the people that I run across, but I continually hear others cluck with pride that they don’t read, as if that is some kind of badge of honor. For those of you who are readers, you might find this interesting, also.

I read fewer books in 2005, than I did the previous two years. Part of the reason is the release of my own book, When Towns Had Teams. From January, until early May, I was working on my manuscript. The early months of the summer were taken with prepping the manuscript for printing and then, the early part of the fall was given over to marketing, writing reviews, shipping orders, etc.

Amazingly, having read only a couple of books going into the fall, I’ve been devouring them of late, hence, a number that is respectable for most, but pales next to some.

Here are the books I read in 2005, with selected accompanying notes.

--Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)

I first got turned on to Schlosser's abilities as an investigative journalist, from reading his best-selling, Fastfood Nation.

While the sales of this one were less than FFN, Schlosser once again peels back the veneer of our capitalist culture, to reveal the underside of the American marketplace.

If you are a fan of investigative journalism, something practices less and less by our corporately-controlled press, I urge you to give Schlosser a go.

--The Long Emergency, by James Kunstler (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005)

I read this early in 2005 and it opened my eyes up to a future that could be radically different, as we near (or some would argue we already have and are on the downward slope) the peak of oil production in the world.

Kunstler is a bit of a “crank”, but anyone not selling the optimistic, pop-a-Prozac, sunny side-‘o-the-street snake oil of the day is characterized that way.

Should be read by anyone who cares to live in the reality-based community.

--Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back, by Jane Holtz Kay

Another book that takes America to task for its easy-motoring ways. Holtz Kay offers a well-written and readable indictment of a nation that bases its travel policy entirely upon a model that is not sustainable for the long-haul. A good compliment to Kunstler.

--A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis, by Diane Ackerman (Vintage, 1998)

If you’ve heard of creative non-fiction, but are not quite sure what it is, Ackerman is one of the best of the genre.

--As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

I tried, I truly did, to understand the genius of Faulkner. I mean if Oprah’s Book Club could read Faulkner, couldn’t I? I blogged about it prior.

--The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, by Davy Rothbart (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 2005)

One of the great "new" writers out there. Rothbart also is the genius behind Found Magazine.

--Left Out: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, by Joshua Frank (Common Courage Press, 2004)

A concise indictment of the Anybody But Bush crowd and Democrats in general. Frank offers a fresh voice, infused with intelligence and reason, in a political world where both are found in short supply.

--Edson, by Bill Morrissey (Knopf, 1996)

Singer/songwriter Morrissey puts down the guitar and picks up the pen for the first time. An intimate look at the working class in a fictional New Hampshire mill town. The central character, 37-year-old Henry Corvine, might very well be Morrissey's nod to the autobiographical.

Comprised of believable characters, this was one of those "finds" that make reading so much fun.

--July, July, by Tim O’Brien (Penguin, 2003)

The exact opposite of Morrissey's book. I brought both Morrissey's book, and this one with me to Florida. Expecting so much more from O'Brien, as he's one of American fiction's bright lights, this book absolutely sucked! With characters you'd just as soon throw from a rooftop, than feel sorry for, this one was an insipid read and I doubt I'll go to O'Brien's inkwell any time soon.

--Florida: A Short History, by Michael Gannon (University Press of Florida, 2003-reprint)

Picked this one up in Florida, while there in November. Read most of it on the flight home; nice treatment of the state's interesting and colorful history.

--Out of Their League, by Dave Meggyyesy (Warner paperback, 1971)

Former pro football player's indictment of the dehumanizing nature of pro football. Meggysey, who played in the late 60s, retired from the game after the 1969 season. Through a series of meetings and events, Meggyesy becomes radicalized in his personal beliefs and politics and when he can no longer go along with being treated like a child and merely an item to be exposed, he walks away from the money, and also the abuse that was and still is the NFL.

I picked this book up for 50 cents at a library book fair. Obviously dated, it offers an interesting glimpse back at a time when America seemed to be striding in the right direction, but has since disavowed and returned to being comfortable with the status quo.

--The Way Life Should Be: Stories by Contemporary Maine Writers (Warren Machine Company, 2005)

Friend and fellow publisher Ari Meil's fine Maine fiction compilation. 17 writers, 17 stories, and one great state. Support your local independent press!

--Maine & Me: Ten Years of Downeast Adventures, by Liz Peavey (Downeast Books, ?)

--Outta’ My Way: An Odd Life, Lived Loudly, by Liz Peavey (Warren Machine Company, 2005)

The latest offering by Warren Maching Company. This gathers Peavey's always funny and often pointed columns from the late, great Casco Bay Weekly, a muckraking rag in the truest sense. The Downeast offering, was a compilation of her articles from the popular Maine magazine's archives.

--Among Schoolchildren, by Tracy Kidder (Harper Perennial, 1990)

Kidder is one of America's best non-fiction writers. This one, along with Lewis' Moneyball, were my favorite non-fiction reads of the year.

--Moneyball, by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton, 2003)

I recently lauded this one, by Lewis. Whether you love baseball, or not, this is great writing and recommended reading.

Happy New Years!! May 2006 spur you to read more books.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Moneyball and the art of living outside the box

I’ve been aware of Michael Lewis’ runaway best seller, Moneyball (W.W. Norton), for over a year. Since the book was released in early 2004, it’s been the talk of the sports world, as well as being a buzzword in other circles.

Several friends and acquaintances have mentioned the book and it’s been on my ever-lengthening list of books to read, at some point. Tuesday evening, it jumped to the top of the pile. My college-age son had picked up a copy while doing his holiday shopping. He read it in two days and tossed it at me with a, “Here, I’m finished—you need to read this” while I was indulging my semi-regular habit of watching South Park.

I stayed up until 1 am, early Wednesday morning reading until I couldn’t keep my eyes open and finished the book last night around 11 pm, after returning from the Greely High School/Alumni hockey game.

I don’t purport to have anything unique or earth-shattering to say about the book, other than it was a tremendously enjoyable read. Lewis is a wonderful writer, who is able to transport his readers into the world of his subject matter and make you forget that you are reading a book. Rather than sitting in your recliner, or lying in bed, reading, you are in the batter’s box, facing a major league pitcher, or sitting in the room on draft day, at the Oakland Coliseum. Another writer that comes to mind who possesses this ability is Tracy Kidder.

I’m not sure if you have to be a baseball fan to enjoy Lewis’ book. Obviously, a talented writer can interest a reader in a subject they know little or nothing about. While I certainly consider myself a fan of the game, I’ve recently cooled in my ardor for the professional variation of the grand ole’ game. Maybe Moneyball will be my invitation back into that world of interest that I’ve maintained a connection with since I was old enough to read my first box score.

For the uninitiated, the central character of Moneyball is one Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team. The A’s are a small market team, with a very miniscule payroll, compared to the likes of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Texas Rangers. To give you an idea, in 2002, the season that Moneyball zeroes in on, Oakland’s payroll was $40 million, while the Yankees’ payroll was over three times that, at $125 million. The Red Sox that year had a payroll of $108 million and the hapless Texas Rangers, thanks to the $50 million dollars being paid to one Alex Rodriguez, was $105 million. Only the Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals), major league baseball’s equivalent to being sent to Siberia and the perennial basement dwellers, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had lower payrolls, of $38 and $34 million respectively.

Beane, a former cant-miss prospect who did miss, has taken the unprecedented route to the general manager’s seat and is now running the show in Oakland. When he realized that his unsuccessful major league career was over, he asked his employer at the time, which happened to be the A’s, to allow him to become an advance scout. This person travels ahead of the big league team and analyzes future opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. At a time in his life that he should have been entering his prime as a player, Beane was asking for a desk job. As Lewis writes, “It was as unlikely as some successful politician quitting a campaign and saying he wanted to be a staffer, or a movie actor walking off the set and taking a job as a key grip.”

What made Moneyball so powerful a read, other than Lewis’ talent as a writer, was the story of how Beane, and his band of renegades, turned the major league scouting process on its head. If you want to see what thinking outside the box really is about, then Moneyball is a book you ought to read.

I found myself touched by the honesty of the writing, the willingness of Beane and the others to have their lives and imperfections laid bare for the reader. At the end of the book, Lewis, in his afterword, which he titles, Inside Baseball’s Religious War, mentions how much of baseball’s inner circle—the GM’s, scouts, along with writers and commentators (Lewis calls them the “Women’s Auxiliary”) basically “flipped out.” Beane, along with his assistant, Paul DePodesta, had no idea that exactly what form Moneyball would take until the book actually came out. Beane, according to Lewis, reacted in “horror.” Some of what Lewis wrote about him, particularly his fits of anger and violent outbursts, didn’t portray him in the best kind of way, yet, I think it was an honest and accurate representation of a complex human being, who had been bred from an early age to be a baseball star. As Lewis wrote, “I wanted to capture Beane doing what he did so well and interestingly: value, acquire, and manage baseball players. And when he did this, in his most intense moments, he was a bit of a maniac.”

To the credit of Bean, DePodesta and the Oakland A’s organization, which easily could have denied and distanced themselves from Lewis’ stories and claimed they were misrepresented, instead showed they were standup people and didn’t do that.

The real idiots of the book are many well-known and not so well-known members of the media. The pompous Joe Morgan, in his typical arrogant fashion, commented on the book that he so obviously hadn’t read—he didn’t even know that Lewis wrote it and not Beane. Because Beane and Company so totally deflated the ideas and conventional wisdom of the “old boys club” of scouts, general managers and other “lifers” of major league baseball, showing much of their thinking was a crock of shit, they had nothing left but to lash out at Beane. He showed the fallacy of drafting bodies, paying high school pitchers huge bonuses and an exposed an entire list of myths that had been perpetuated for decades.

While its possible to find fault with some of Beane’s conclusions, it’s hard to argue with the success that the A’s have achieved while maintaining one of baseball’s lowest payrolls. Year after year, since 2002, they’ve won in excess of 90 games a season, with players that were veritable castoffs from other baseball organizations. They’ve proven that getting on base is the most important thing in baseball and that you can find players who are capable of doing that without breaking the bank.

As I finished reading the book, I found myself wishing for another book like this one that I wouldn’t want to put down and would read at every opportunity and spare moment I could squire away. I also wondered about the application of these ideas in other areas; think about how life is so much about accepting the status quo in politics, economics, business and other areas. We are fed a line of BS and we are taught never to question it. Maybe we can all learn a lesson from Billy Beane and realize that our greatest opportunities may come when we decide it’s time to jump in and begin swimming upstream against the current, with the flotsam and jetsam of narrow-mindedness passing by at our elbow.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Running Kites

For many Americans, perceptions of other societies and cultures usually involve arrogance, ignorance and even, condescension. While our nation is a baby compared to many others around the world, we are socialized to believe that everything in and around America is superior to other "backward" cultures. Consumerism and military might trump the preservation of history and culture every time.

Accidentally, I happened to tune in C-Span 2 and catch author Khaled Hosseini, speaking about his book, The Kite Runner (Riverhead Books, 2003) and his life growing up and then leaving Afghanistan. Raised the oldest of five siblings by educated parents—his mother was a teacher of Farsi and History at a high school for girls and his father, a diplomat—Hosseini went to live in Paris at the age of 11, as his father was assigned to a diplomatic post in the French city.

Following a bloody communist coup and the invasion of his former homeland by the Soviets, Hosseini’s family settled in the U.S in 1980., finding a home in San Jose, California, where the young Hosseini grew up and has lived for the past 25 years.

I was transfixed, listening to Hosseini talk about his book, his life as a young Afghan male, and his family. He told about a country and his home city of Kabul, then a teeming, cosmopolitan environment, where he regularly read novels and other literature from the west, after it was translated into his native Farsi. Like any other young man fascinated by books and ideas, this Afghan young man fell in love with reading and his life was forever enriched by it.

Like most Americans, I know little or nothing about Hosseini’s native country. Afghanistan occupies a unique place in the world, geographically, historically and culturally, as it exists at the crossroads of the Asian continent. Historian Alfred Toynbee called the country, "the roundabout of the ancient world." It has been a place where the migrating peoples of Asia passed through, leaving behind a rich mosaic of the continent.

Its most recent history has been characterized by coups, and civil unrest. For much of the past 30 years, the country became a pawn of the Cold War, with a Soviet occupation and the U.S. covertly funding the Mujahideen opposition. Prior to that, however, it had been a place, not unlike much of the western world, with an educated and prosperous middle class Because of its prior history and simmering tribal rivalries that had been kept dormant for decades, the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 caused destabilization and warlordism. With the U.S. no longer interested in the country after the Soviet withdrawal, the country experienced a vacuum of leadership that made it ripe for the rise of the Taliban movement.

As I listened to Hosseini speak, I thought about the Kabul of his youth and the contrast of a bombed out and gutted city that I had witnessed via a CNN documentary on the Taliban, about a year ago. It made me think of another former cradle of civilization and culture that had been destroyed by political factions and imperialistic tendencies of the world’s last superpower—that being the nation of Iraq.

Both countries had experienced the loss of an educated, middle class culture and way of life, with the possibility that it will never to return. Hosseini, who speaks at least three languages, is an internist, as well as having written a best selling book, puts most arrogant Americans to shame with his intellectual attainment.

I found myself wondering what other civilizations we’ll have a hand in destroying in our quest for world domination. I also found my thoughts invaded by self-doubt about writing down my observations about Hosseini, his former homeland and the role that America plays in making the world a place that is becoming more homogenized by the day. There are certainly people who care about the destruction and loss of other societies and civilizations, but I’m concerned that we are in the minority and lack the power to counter the ideology of moral superiority that grows larger and seeks to devour the rest of our planet.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Seasons Greetings

Happy Holidays!!

Thanks for taking time this past year to stop by and read my musings here at Words Matter. I wish each and every one of you the merriest and most festive of holidays, in whatever way that you celebrate them.

May peace prevail in 2006.

Gettin' smacked down

The best analysis of most new events come from those who write the heart--basically non-professionals, merely taking it in, thinking a bit, and then laying it down for others.

Steve Gilliard, over at The News Blog understands this, and posts some rather incisive comments from someone from lower Manhatten, pertaining to the NYC transit strike.
I had some time to think about this walking home last night, so here goes:

Well…I screwed up last night. I made the grievous mistake of making day three of the transit strike the day I panicked and shopped a bit too heavily for the kids’ gifts. A little Daffy’s, a touch of Old Navy and Modell’s, capped off with a whisper of Steve Madden for the daughter (poor baby’s a bit of a Bigfoot at 11) and before I knew it, I’d loaded myself down with three shopping bags of ersatz Santa leavings in addition to the slim valise I’d been carrying during the strike in lieu of my heavy computer bag.

The delicate balance had been lost. The not too bad walk to Brooklyn became a f*cking ordeal. The top of my right foot began throbbing as I neared the Manhattan Bridge. Midway, it was a hot icepick stabbing through the foot. By bridge’s end, I envied Kunta Kinté, who’d had his foot chopped off by an angry massa.

I rested just after the walkway in front of some high school or other, marshaling strength for the trudge ahead. The traffic was scream-worthy. A call to the wife to drive down to downtown Brooklyn to get me was out of the question—it was inaccessible.

So I walked some more.

Slowly though, as the pain returned. I found myself at Grand Army Plaza. I stopped to gather myself and let out a huge exhale when a car pulled up next to me, honking. It wasn’t a cab, or livery car—just a small black Honda with a mid late 20’s/early 30’s Black woman in the front seat and one in back. Did I know them?

“Goin’ to Rochester Avenue…you headin’ that way?, the squat woman in front asked.

“F*ck yes!”, I screamed in my head—which came out of my mouth as “Yup! Utica and Eastern, thanks so much!”

I loaded my bags in the back next to the other woman and fell into the front seat as we pulled off for the final 2 miles or so home.

After a long, pregnant pause (and making sure I wasn’t gonna be mugged by the cast of “Set It Off II—The Reckoning”) I piped up, “I really appreciate this—you heading home from work?”

“Nah.”, she replied. “Just tryin’ to make a little extra paper goin’ between here and the bridge. You’re my last one.”

After a pause, she continued, “I know I confused you with this little car an’ all, but I got m’ girl ridin’ with me—one woman in a car is kind of a target, soooo…I’m rollin’ like this. Made about two-hundred dollars tonight.” The butchy friend in the back seat gave a half-nod as if to say “We cleaned up…big time.”

“How much for my ride?”, I asked, figuring I could maybe live without the pint of blood I’d be charged along with fifty bucks.

“Eight dollars.”, she said.

You can read the rest at the blog, under the heading, "What the Daily News Didn't Tell You."

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Back to work

Apparently the transit workers in NYC are headed back to work. Faced with the prospect of jail time, union leaders were forced to concede to the demands of the ruling elite, men like Michael Bloomberg, who probably hasn’t done a day of manual labor in his life.

Of course, commuters, inconvenienced and unaware of anything remotely resembling labor history, sided with the bosses and demanded that workers return to their posts. Now, workers will be required to labor without a contract, as talks are set to resume after the holiday.

Before I start to get the general anti-union rhetoric that is par for the course when unionism and any form of solidarity is mentioned, read some of this post from Confined Space, on what transit workers face in the form of hazards, while conducted their daily transit-related tasks.

If you care to understand why unions are still necessary, here is an interesting discussion about how unions create wages that allow workers to live with some dignity.

I had hoped that Richard, over at Commie Curmudgeon would weigh in on the strike, seeing that he lives in the city and uses public transit. He didn’t let me down.

The current state of unionism is in sorry shape. Rather than being advocates of the worker, too many of labor’s leadership ends up siding with those like Bloomberg, who prefer to exploit the workers, rather than give them a share of the fruits of their daily toil. I hope that New York’s transit workers end up with an equitable contract, but I fear that they’ll be sold out and forced to accept less than they are entitled to under honest bargaining.

As our retail-based economy continues to represent most of the new jobs being created, unions and the power to bargain collectively for living wages will once again become important. We are definitely headed in the wrong direction on pay equity and with corporate mouthpieces working diligently to divide and conquer, things won't improve any time soon.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Surveillance culture

Since the revelation was made that President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to spy on Americans, I've heard some frightening excuses given as to why this was ok. Granted, some of it is as moronic as the caller on C-Span the other morning saying, "I 'ain't got nothin' to hide, so I don't care if they listen in on my phone calls." This type of stupidity is obviously a product of inbreeding, so there isn't much that can be done to combat this.

Then, there are the Bush apologists, driven by ideological purity, which says that all is fair in the "war on terrah'"; once again, I don't know how to counteract drinking the Kool-aid. There's not much that one can come up with that will sway a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, from their preconceived notions.

What concerns me is the general level of malaise and apparent lack of perspective of many other Americans about this, however.

Michael Hawkins, over at Spontaneous Arising, has some of the best (and genuinely frightening) analysis on what all of this means. I was fascinated by his using Benthem's panopticon in illustrating the scope and possibilities of surveillance possible, given our enhanced technological capabilities.

This stuff is worth reading, if you can wedge it in amongst the gift wrapping, eggnog and fruitcake of the season.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The US Blues

Is it possible to maintain even a façade of democracy, when hype, fear, and mindless flag-waving have replaced informed debate and a commitment to the democratic process and social justice? Whether it’s the morning callers from across the country on C-Span’s Morning Journal program, or morning drive programs carried on local radio and television affiliates, the acceptance that American’s are willing to abide by to perpetuate blatant lies is astounding.

Recently, I read Michael Parenti’s pithy book, Superpatriotism (City Lights, 2004), in which he deconstructs the meaning of patriotism, or love of one’s country. I thought he did an excellent job in showing how those who appeal to a lower common denominator, such as patriotism (based on raw emotionalism), are actually the least patriotic of people. Of course, Parenti’s definition of what patriotism is, as acceptable as it is for me, might not be acceptable to those who equate it with God, guns, and flag.

What I like about writers like Parenti, is their skill at taking ideas commonly held and then using the same definition or idea to illustrate the paucity of their position. What exactly is patriotism, leaving aside Sameul Johnson’s, “the last refuge of scoundrels?”

Here are a few of many instances that Parenti uses to illustrate the futility of the form of patriotism promoted by many on the right, as well as significant numbers on the left.

--Is it patriotic for plutocratic power brokers to hail a “healthy America”, yet defund public health services and work closely with big pharma and insurance corporations to line their pockets?

--How about insisting that middle class Americans shoulder public debt, while excusing the weathiest Americans from paying their contribution, and extending tax cuts to them?

--Is it patriotic to pay lip service to our nation’s environmental heritage and natural beauty, while doing little or nothing to prevent it being plundered by mining, timber and oil interests (see drilling in ANWR)?

--How patriotic is it to routinely overcharge the U.S. government for supplies and services, or submit false bids (noncompetitive, at that) for government contracts, and then turn around and provide shoddy products and supplies to our military personnel in Iraq? That, of course is Halliburton’s contribution to patriotism.

And while we’re on the subject of the troops, and the ubiquitous and meaningless (I’d add, sickening) mantra “support our troops”, how the hell can anyone claim they are supporting them by warehousing our wounded for months in places like Fort Stewart, Georgia, where the conditions for men and women who paid a significant physical price for the flag, were absolutely squalid. In addition, wounded military members are seeing their pay and health benefits severely reduced, while no longer active for duty. I imagine this has something to do with the fact the few members of our ruling elite or their children have to face battle conditions, so they know little about what sacrifice is when it comes to waving the flag.

So what exactly does “real” patriotism stand for? As Parenti wrote, “Real patriots do not easily succumb to popular fears about external menaces that are propagated by the plutocracy.”

He goes on to note the things that people ought to be fearful of such as,

--Global warming
--The caustic effect that money has on our political process
--Recent examples of voting fraud, election thievery, as well as outright intimidation of voters, right in our own “democratic” country
--The looting of our public treasury by rampant corporate crime.

Paraphrasing Parenti, real patriots understand that the spirit of liberty and freedom in our country was displayed by those willing to speak truth to power. The early leaders of the labor movement, Socialist candidates for president such as Eugene Debs, Thomas Paine and Harriet Tubman and all those who were willing to risk the safety of a comfortable life, to challenge the status quo of power and property that extends back to our founding as a nation.

True patriotism is knowing our country’s history and true legacy and not succumbing to emotional grandstanding and the symbolic shamanism that passes for loving one’s country. Those willing to run with the true patriotic crowd will receive their share of vilification and catcalls, but the company that you’ll keep will be much more interesting and a hell of a lot more authentic. The stakes are higher than ever to cut through the shroud of superstition and drill deeper for truth.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Your government spies on you

When Nixon engaged in illegal wiretaps, during the midst of Watergate, it eventually led to his impeachment. Now, new revelations that President Bush authorized illegal eavesdropping on U.S. citizens on numerous occasions since 2001.

We have an administration that will stop at nothing in furthering their goals and agenda. It should be obvious that they care little for the rule of law and operate without regard to the freedoms and liberties of Americans.

Here is the article in the NY Times about the latest on the Bush administration's rollback of our rights.

December 16, 2005

Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts

WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 - Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible "dirty numbers" linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval was a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches.

"This is really a sea change," said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. "It's almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches."

Nearly a dozen current and former officials, who were granted anonymity because of the classified nature of the program, discussed it with reporters for The New York Times because of their concerns about the operation's legality and oversight.

According to those officials and others, reservations about aspects of the program have also been expressed by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a judge presiding over a secret court that oversees intelligence matters. Some of the questions about the agency's new powers led the administration to temporarily suspend the operation last year and impose more restrictions, the officials said.

The Bush administration views the operation as necessary so that the agency can move quickly to monitor communications that may disclose threats to the United States, the officials said. Defenders of the program say it has been a critical tool in helping disrupt terrorist plots and prevent attacks inside the United States.

Administration officials are confident that existing safeguards are sufficient to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans, the officials say. In some cases, they said, the Justice Department eventually seeks warrants if it wants to expand the eavesdropping to include communications confined within the United States. The officials said the administration had briefed Congressional leaders about the program and notified the judge in charge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret Washington court that deals with national security issues.

The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.

Read the rest at the New York Times website.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Mainuh' makes good

From All Things Maine, I found out that the King Kong remake has ties to Maine, yessah!--

If the digital effects in the latest King Kong remake cause you to choke on your popcorn, you can thank Eric Saindon. He acted as a CGI supervisor for the film. And he's from Maine.

Saindon was born in Bangor, moved to Portland when he was 9, and graduated from Gorham High School and Central Maine Technical College. He later studied computer animation at Washington State University. He now works for WETA Digital in New Zealand, which also did visual effects for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.Saindon will be speaking at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland Thursday morning, and was interviewed for today's Press Herald.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Sauerkraut: For what ails 'ya

My Saturday foray into the commercial belly of the Christmas beast ended up being a major disappointment. Redemption arrived soon after, however. Sunday saw my wife and me venturing north, along Maine’s section of U.S. Route 1. With the tourists gone and apparently, many of the area’s residents elsewhere, we had downtown Bath virtually to ourselves. A trip to Reny’s allowed us to run into a longtime friend, as well as seeing us stocking up on some needed supplies We then headed out, down the midcoast corridor, towards Waldoboro.

Maine photographer and photojournalist, Cindy McIntyre (who I mentioned elsewhere), was hosting an open studio in her home. Unpacking many of her photos and prints, McIntyre set up an interesting and festive display in her Waldoboro studio. It was interesting to talk shop with a fellow author and word has it that Santa might be bringing me a copy of her book, A Century Apart; Maine Then and Now (Downeast, 2004), for Christmas.

Since we were in the vicinity of Morse’s Sauerkraut, we meandered northward along Route 220 to Maine’s only commercial producer of the German staple and longtime favorite of the Baumer clan. My grandfather used to make sauerkraut and I would eagerly anticipate the late fall ritual, when he, along with my uncle Bob, and my father, put up their supply of fermented cabbage for the winter. With only one cousin currently keeping alive the family's tradition, I learned to make ‘kraut and have put up my own supply over the past few winters. Unfortunately, the busyness of having a book to schlep around, kept me from making any this year.

Morse’s Sauerkraut has been producing this delectable treat since 1918. They have a well-stocked specialty food store at the farm, where visitors can, of course, supply themselves with sauerkraut. They also have an ample supply of sausages, pork products, cheeses, homemade pickles, Aunt Lydia’s Beet Relish, as well as a variety of German pastries and other treats.

Apparently, sauerkraut has acquired newfound interest, as it has been found to have health benefits above and beyond that which Germans and other connoisseurs have always known about the delicacy. Scientists in Seoul, Korea have found that chickens, infected with the Avian flu virus, began to recover, when fed an extract of kimchi (a Korean dish, similar to Sauerkraut). Additionally, sauerkraut may have properties that lower a woman’s risk of breast cancer. And you just thought sauerkraut tasted good, right?

With winter’s doldrums beginning to set in, now’s the time to venture out and reclaim the state’s roadways as your own. Never have the Pine Tree State’s corridors been so free of annoying tourists and other outsiders. Maine’s hidden treasures are there to enjoy for another few months before Memorial Day’s onslaught begins anew. An additional bonus of trips to places other than Cumberland and York counties, particularly north and downeast, is that one gets to experience firsthand the character and quality of Maine, the way life used to be, back before our state began to be gobbled up by wealthy land barons. Enjoy it now, before some flatlander puts up a “keep out” sign in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Shutting it down for the holidays

Talk about a persecution complex—the religious right keep coming up with new ways to cement the perceptions of many that they have no connection at all with reality, or Jesus, for that matter. If the myth of Jesus represents the best qualities in mankind, then so many of these fundamentalist adherents to their amalgam of flag, politics and militarism represent the ugly aspects of America.

First, there is the daily drumbeat about their Christmas being stolen, via O’Reilly, John Gibson and the other proto-fascists of Fox News. Now, we see that they have issues with President Bush’s Christmas cards—apparently they lack the right’s imprimatur, sanctioning that Baby Jesus is given the proper prominence on the president’s cards. When Bush cozied up to this crowd, it was the equivalent of reaching into a viper’s pit. If he doesn’t cater to every whim and wish of these fringe dwellers, they are launching diatribes, pronouncements and a new wave of boycotts.

If you’re still not convinced that these right-tilting “wack jobs” have no affiliation with traditional interpretations of Jesus and even Christianity, there is this, from CNN (courtesy of another Maine blogger, over at Mainelife); Christmas can’t mean all that much to these “true believers”, if the commercialization of the holidays (oh, excuse me, Christmas) takes precedence over the celebration of Jesus’ birth. I thought that’s what religious people did on Christmas—went to church? I mean, I was raised Roman Catholic and going to mass (for many, its midnight mass) was as much a part of Christmas as food and presents. For these modern SUV-driving, war-loving, hate-spreading fundamentalists, there is little supporting their program.

Personally, I don’t see that Christmas has been stolen. I think it’s too damn commercial, but, I choose to take what I like and leave the rest. I’ve already watched A Charlie Brown Christmas tape and I’ll spend some time with It’s A Wonderful Life, as well as A Walton’s Christmas and I’ll be transported back to the happy times of Christmas past. Hell, I might even attend mass for the first time in decades. I might be agnostic, but I do enjoy the religious story of Christmas.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Chavez offers Americans cheap oil

Venezuala’s President, Hugo Chavez, continues to pose a threat to the United States and the Bush administration. The major threat obviously is the clear representation of what a government, concerned with the daily needs of people, might look like. Because his policies clearly contradict those of our so-called democracy, the corporately-controlled media must define his actions with the typical language of the elite they represent.

Using terms like “coup” and “marketing ploy” to describe Venezuela’s offer of cheap oil to Massachetts’ poor is an example of how the media spins information in an attempt to prop up America’s elite and powerful.

Venezuela's state-owned Citgo Petroleum Corp., promoted its plan to offer 12 million gallons of cut-rate oil this winter with the headline, “How Venezuela is Keeping the Home Fires Burning in Massachusetts.” Running ads in two of the nation’s major dailies (including The New York Times), the company trumpeted its largesse as “humanitarian aid” and “a simple act of generosity.” Typically, The Wall Street Journal, which masquerades as a newspaper, but is nothing more than an apologist for corporate policy, found fault with the program.

Taking to task both Representative William Delahunt (D-Massachusetts) and former Representative Joe Kennedy, for cooperating with Chavez, the paper found fault with their acceptance of aid from a dictator. Actually, I’m sure it had more to do with Chavez’ criticism and clear disdain for our own unelected president, George W. Bush, the spoiled former frat boy, turned leader of the free world.

Critics and other lackeys of the elite, are unable to see past their corporate loyalties and have branded Chavez’ actions as “a cynical ploy to score public relations points” and are designed to “tweak the Bush administration.”

Delahunt and Kennedy, whose Citizens Energy Corp. will help deliver the oil, counter that keeping poor people warm is their priority.

''I don't report to George Bush,'' Delahunt said at a news conference last week. ``I'm elected by the people here in Massachusetts. So I don't feel any particular need to consult with George Bush or Dick Cheney about oil.''

Other foreign suppliers of oil to the U.S. have authoritarian governments and are accused of human rights abuses, a Kennedy aide noted.

''If we applied a democratic screen to countries we get our oil from, we'd never have enough oil to heat our homes and drive our cars,'' said Kennedy's spokesman, Brian O'Connor.

Since our own U.S.-owned oil corporations, buddied up with both Bush and Cheney, are hell-bent on greater and greater profits at the expense of the American people, maybe The Wall Street Journal could turn their pens on their greed and disdain for the working class and the poor. I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen, however. When given the opportunity to put people before profit, during natural disasters and human misery, these robber barons jacked up prices quickly and unmercilessly.

The Bush junta and most of the current crop of politicians regularly show disdain for the needs and concerns of most Americans. It’s time that the working class and others outside the power belt recognize who our friends are. It sure isn’t our own government or those in the media who constantly excuse the fleecing of the American people, regularly and without end.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Maine potatoes and the NY Times

Back in April, 2004, I was at Portland’s Earth Day celebration, hawking copies of the city’s late, great alternative newspaper, The Portland Pigeon. I met an interesting gentleman, a farmer from The County (that’s Aroostook County, to your flatlanders out there). Jim Cook, an organic farmer from Grand Isle, had a booth and we talked about farming, sustainable economies and how multi-national corporations were killing local culture. As a farmer, he obviously saw things from the ground-floor (pun intended). My intention was to look into the possibility of finding a story about farming and pitch it. We spoke by phone, but other projects and life’s busyness found the idea pushed aside.

Fast-forward over18 months later and Jim Cook and his Aroostook County potatoes, along with a Portland chef are being featured (requires free registration) in the NY Times Dining and Wine section. Lest you think that Cook is just another farmer, seeking to cash in by marketing to a wealthy niche of food snobs and high society types, think again. While selling his potatoes to specialty restaurants and natural food stores helps to keep him in business, his breed of farmer bodes well for the industry’s future. He “gets” the connection between local foods and the future health of society.

I took the occasion of the article (replete with photo) to touch bases with him by sending him an email. I’m starting to ramp up the idea percolator and farmers like Cook, who see the big picture, are perfect Mainers to speak with in helping me see the forest for the trees (or potatoes for the fields). He was as congenial as I remember him to be and I will definitely be sitting down with him some time, soon.

It’s hard not to sense his deep love for his craft and his desire to be part of the solution, I feel better knowing that farming is in the hands of people like Jim Cook (and many others). A lot of forces are at work, that might bring farming and local foods back to center stage, where they belong.

Maybe it’s not accidental that potatoes are on my radar screen at this point. It was the potato that allowed me to get to know my German immigrant farmer better than my other cousins. I remember his own local garden where he grew potatoes, as well as cucumbers, corn, tomatoes and many other vegetables. My Opa knew nothing about organic farming, but he respected his land and cared for it the best way that he knew how. I was fortunate to have experienced those late summer and early fall harvests as a youngster. There’s nothing like a meal from that which comes from your own efforts and bounty.

I look forward to having an opportunity to talk farming and local foods with Cook at some point in the not-too-distant future. For the time being, I’m happy to see Maine spuds enjoy some marquee billing in the Big Apple.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Buy, buy, buy!!

We are in that season that no longer stands for anything, other than rampant consumerism. No longer are people content to savor the sentimental moments that at one time made the holidays a much more enjoyable time. Now it’s shop, shop, shop! With consumer debt headed for the stratosphere, why stop now? Max out the plastic and pay the piper later.

About five or six years ago, my wife and I just decided to downsize our Christmas. As a result, one aspect of our lives has never been better (or saner). Obviously, we are in a very small minority; a trip to the general vicinity of a shopping mall over the next three weeks will validate our status as fringe dwellers.

I ran across this quote, while doing some reading over at Jim Kunstler’s blog on Peak Oil. For me, it succinctly sums up the mentality of the pack that I am seeing: I’ll just stand back and let this person, who posts under the moniker, Mewsician, have the podium:

"Americans have digressed to the point of utter soullessness, a condition in which the only thing they know to do is buy things in an effort to make themselves feel good and to carve out some kind of (albeit shallow and pitiful) identity. I buy, therefore I am.

Remember that watershed moment when, incredibly, George Bush stood amidst the Twin Towers rubble and told people to "go shopping." IMO, that was truly a profound and riveting reflection of what this country has become—it didn't get NEAR the examination and discussion it deserved in the national discourse. A nation traumatized by violent assault, and our "leader" tells us to go out and buy cheap Chinese crap to make ourselves feel better. THAT was his recipe for healing, his idea of a balm for a shaken national psyche. I still can't get over it.

For me, that was THE defining George Bush moment—even ahead of the flight suit debacle and all the rest. But it's what is at the core of all that ails us—we cannot be a society that knows or values nothing except the monetary and what we can buy and take back to our cave.

This.....unchecked, we will continue our downward spiral into ever-more-meaningless lives of quiet emotional desperation. And when the coming energy nightmare truly arrives—and the Walmart trucks can't deliver the shiny baubles to the stores for the magpies to paw over and take back to their trashy nest—it will be just that much more tragic a set of circumstances."

If interested in leaving the consumer merry-go-round this Christmas, here are a couple of sites worth checking out; and yes, I know, this shit freaks people out!

Buy Nothing

Rev. Billy

Monday, November 28, 2005

Why no website?

It always amazes me how many Maine-based writers don’t have websites or blogs. Obviously, I should be careful in lobbing any criticism their way, if in fact that’s what I am doing (I am not); they could always come back at me by saying that their success stems from not “wasting time” with the blogging platform, or other web-based endeavors. Instead, their energy is focused on their latest book project and getting it to market.

Actually, one Maine-based writer, wildly successful and prolific beyond imagination, Tess Gerritsen, has both. I don’t feel so bad now pointing out that other writers have fallen short on promoting their work. If it’s good for Gerritsen, it’s obviously good for me, right?

Granted, Gerritsen is a totally different animal than I am, or aspire to be. She’s a writer who labors in the fiction camp. Her first novel, Call After Midnight, was a romantic thriller. She followed that up with eight more that belong to the same genre. In 1996, she detoured from romantic thrillers and penned her first medical thriller, Harvest, which was her first trip to the New York Times Best Seller List. Since then, she’s routinely made appearances on the coveted yardstick of a writer’s success. Her books have been made into movies and she commands attention wherever she goes. I enjoyed reading her blog, as it gives readers a mirror into her world, and shows a human side that other writers seem to lack.

Another Maine-based writer, who has an interesting website and mines the non-fiction realm, is Hannah Holmes. Holmes’ book, The Secret Life of Dust has received several awards and has been featured on Terri Gross’s Fresh Air program, as well as C-Span’s Book TV.

While not a Maine-based writer, Po Bronson’s books have found their way onto my reading list on several occasions. He also has a website worth looking over, including a fairly extensive reading list.

I’m in the process of having my own website revamped, as I am of the mind that a writer should have a website. I’m aware that writing success requires more than having a presence on the web, and/or a blog, but both certainly can’t hurt. I’m at a loss as to why more writers don’t their own site, especially some very well-known and critically acclaimed authors.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Kill, kill, kill!!

The name, Davy Rothbart, has flashed across my radar screen several times over the past few months. The originator of the truly unique Found Magazine, Rothbart is a member of a new breed of writers.

In its most basic form, Found is a collection of snippets—love letters, notes, birthday cards, to-do lists, doodles—that give Rothbart and crew license to come up with stories based upon these random pieces that they’ve gathered.

The “kill list” that I’ve put up is from Rothbart’s site for the magazine. This note was found on NYC’s 6 train, during Fleet week. Obviously, the person who created it has some strong feelings about who and what needs to be eliminated to re-order his/her world.

Not only does Rothbart collect random scraps of everyday detritus—he is also a talented writer and has a collection of short stories out. The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas (Touchstone, 2005) consists of eight short stories, five of which were originally self-published by Rothbart. His talent has been recognized by Simon and Schuster, who have re-issued Rothbart’s book as one of their trade paperbacks.

I read Lone Surfer during my recent flight to Florida, in early November. Rothbart has an edgy style that pulls you in and makes you care about his characters. I found myself wishing that the book had many more stories, which is always a good sign for any book.

Rothbart and his DIY ways have been on my mind this weekend because my son is home from college. He has taken on his own project—a self-published zine that he’s been hawking himself around the Wheaton campus—ala Rothbart and other similar Gen X entrepreneurs. Mark’s project, GMBO, is beyond my ability to describe in the limited space I’ll allow in this post. Let’s just say it’s unique, and as such, has brought with it fresh controversy on the Wheaton campus and from selected regions of the Ivory Tower.

Interestingly, when I was reading Rothbart’s book in the airport in Portsmouth, waiting for my plane, I found myself thinking of my son, Mark. I realized that for most of my life, I’ve pushed him to succeed at athletics and have often viewed him first as an athlete and then secondly, as a unique individual, with original thoughts, ideas, etc. Since this fall, when he first started writing, only to see his work spat upon by the third-rate campus newspaper, I’ve started to see my son in a different light. I can’t tell you how much I’ve been enjoying reading his material, especially his zine, GMBO. It’s really made me appreciate the creative process even more and try to be as supportive as I can of what he’s doing, and to provide encouragement for his writing, something that I never received at his age.

If you are looking for an interesting read, something worth turning off the TV for, during November and December’s interminably long bouts of darkness, check out Rothbart’s book, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. It will entertain you and better yet, probably make you think about life’s paradoxes, ranging from random strangeness and tragedy, to epiphanies tinged with unsurpassed beauty.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Giving thanks in the land of plenty

When you no longer buy into the mythology of American exceptionalism, the holidays suddenly take on a less celebratory nation. Since leaving behind God and country a number of years back, one of the first things I noticed is how much our holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Superbowl Sunday—are wrapped in the same trappings and lies as everything else about our nation. At least Christmas has carols, Charlie Brown and Jimmy Stewart to soften realities sucker punch to the sternum. Thanksgiving, unfortunately doesn’t lend itself so easily to delusion.

For the past several Thanksgivings, gathered around the turkey and trimmings, I’ve naively attempted discussions with family members and others, attempting to inject a bit of reality into the revelry. This unceremonious attempt revealed the depth of indoctrination that permeates our daily existence as Americans. The entire Indian/Pilgrim myth is one such lie that refuses to go away. Yes, there are those who do their best to demythologize the day and bring some veracity to the proceedings. But these folks are usually afforded the same level of respect and honor as the participants at a UFO convention.

In searching for writings about the day, it was instructive that so much sounded just like this;

“Most people know better than to view Thanksgiving as merely a day off from work and an opportunity to load up on turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie.

In a greater sense, Thanksgiving asks people to hearken back to this country's 17th century settlers, the obstacles they overcame during their first year in America and the friendships they developed with American Indians.

Those stories are introduced early in every child's life: the pilgrims, the fish used to fertilize corn, the wild turkeys with multicolored feathers and the chilly spray of the Atlantic Ocean on Plymouth Rock.

They are great romantic tales, and they may or may not be entirely true. But regardless of how valid the details are, the legends are instructive nonetheless. Thanksgiving, like most other holidays, can offer a chance for introspection, self-understanding and enlightened behavior.”

With serious issues about the historical authentication of the myth, I do at least give this writer some credit for directing readers towards, “introspection, self-understanding and enlightened behavior (whatever the fuck that means)”. If my yearly cycle of gathering with family and gouging ourselves on food is like most others (I would guess that it is), I don’t recall much of anything bordering on introspection or self-understanding.

Knowing that for many in our nation and other places, there isn’t a lot to be thankful for this turkey day, I offer the following things that aren’t worth giving thanks for. Maybe our nation’s affluenza makes it impossible for an American to be thankful and feel blessed for any of the abundance that they’ve acquired.

Without any further ado, here is a list 2005’s things to be unthankful for—think of it as the anti-Thanksgiving, 2005: Not intended to be an exhaustive listing, it offers an opportunity for reflection for those few hearty souls who care to add that to their turkey and fixings, as well as pumpkin pie.

  • Bombs falling on your head and killing your family (My nod to celebrations in other lands, such as Iraq)
  • The families of soldiers who won’t be returning for another Thanksgiving meal
  • The 30,000 GM carmakers who will be losing their jobs and their generous benefits
  • The millions of other Americans, the nation’s working poor, who will find it difficult to celebrate Thanksgiving, or any other holiday, on sub-living wage pay and no benefits
  • The countless Americans being squeezed by an administration bent on extending and making tax cuts permanent to their wealthy friends and benefactors—if any group should be thankful, it should be these bastards—instead, they’ll think of their gilded position as their right and not a privilege.
  • The many members of America’s working and exploited classes, forced to labor on a day that traditionally meant that commerce shut down for the day; instead, in a consumer nation where the corporate machine whirs 24/7/365, there is no such thing as a holiday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A stand to remember

The mill town of Lisbon Falls, my hometown, informs much of what I write and care about. It is there that my working class lens through which I view much of my world was formed and nurtured. Many of us are products of where we were born, or spent important periods of our development, especially if you spent most of your formative years in one place. For good or bad, Lisbon High School had a lot to do with the person I am today. I mean, if it was good enough for Stephen King for god sake, then it was good enough for me! If you’ve read When Towns Had Teams, the threads of town team baseball, small town life and my alma mater intertwine.

I had the good fortune of being at Fitzpatrick Stadium, in Portland, for the Class C state championship football game on Saturday night. I went out for dinner and drinks with my former high school and town team battery mate, Mike Sawyer, of whom you read about at the end of my book. Mike is the one high school mate that I’ve kept in touch with over the years. Looking back, it’s interesting, as he and I weren’t terribly close in school, other than being teammates in baseball and basketball. But our post-high school paths have crossed due to baseball and I’ve found Mike on the receiving end of my pitches for over 20 years, with numerous breaks in between. I also found out the Mike was an extra in the romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon, Fever Pitch. He told me he spent a week this summer, at Fenway Park, waiting around from 5pm, until 5am, for his brief flirtation as a celluloid hero. His bit part was minor; a cameo during Barrymore’s run across the field; he also is seen briefly in a Yankee uniform (damn him to hell!). I’ll have to re-watch the flick to catch his brief appearances, now that I know about them.

The football game, played on a chilly night in proximity to Casco Bay, was a classic. Both Lisbon and their opponent, Foxcroft Academy, had a history coming into the game. It was Foxcroft Academy who derailed Lisbon’s quest for their 10th state football title two years ago. Both of these teams had hooked up in the late November, 1997 tilt that Lisbon won on the legendary 80 yard touchdown drive, on a frozen field, with the clock winding down, known ever since as just, “the drive”. Saturday night will go down in Lisbon football folklore in the same breath as that game.

With two evenly matched teams with varying styles going at one another for four quarters, this was entertaining football. Foxcroft, with their wide open, run and shoot-style offense and stellar passing attack; Lisbon with their in-your-face, run you over style of football, providing an obvious contrast.

With Lisbon’s defense being unscored on for 5 consecutive weeks and Foxcroft’s penchant for putting points on the scoreboard, it was a clash of the titans type of affair. While Foxcroft was able to reel off some big plays, pushing Lisbon’s backs to the wall much of the first half, the only scoring for Foxcroft’s Ponies was an 87 yard punt return just before the half. This allowed Foxcroft to go to the locker room with a 7-6 lead.

Lisbon answered early in the third by uncharacteristically putting the ball in the air. A 31-yard scoring strike and a failed conversion had the Greyhounds up, 12-7. Both teams were unable to mount much of a threat after that, until Foxcroft’s final possession of the game and their season.

With the clock winding down on the 2005 season, the Ponies drove the length of the field, completing clutch passes on third down several times. With less than a minute left, it appeared that the Ponies would find the end zone, with insufficient time left for the run-oriented Greyhounds to counter. With a roughing the passer call on fourth down putting Foxcroft, first and goal from the 2-yard line, things didn’t look real hopeful for the Lisbon faithful. However, longtime coach, Dick Mynahan, called a time-out and obviously had something to say to his defense. The first play from scrimmage saw a run with no gain. The next play in the series saw the Foxcroft running back stuffed for a two-yard loss. A running play to the left saw the Ponies regain their original spot and it all came down to the last play. The elusive QB for the ponies, a southpaw, launched a pass attempt towards the far sideline of the endzone and it was batted away by the Greyhound defender and bedlam broke out on the Lisbon side of the stadium. One of the most improbable finishes had allowed the prototypical, hard-nosed Lisbon High team, another state football title.

Being there, Saturday night was special. From the people I ran into, some, former high school teammates that I hadn’t seen for 20-odd years, to the improbable and dramatic finish, it was a memorable evening. Another event in a line of many that cements my affection and affinity for my former hometown of Lisbon Falls, and another wild football ending, which will now be known as “the stand”.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Reading more fiction

Behold, I’m reading more fiction!. After dipping my toe into the genre, I figured I was ready to tackle a heavyweight—bring on Faulker! I mean, if Oprah’s summer book club of literary lightweights can handle this difficult American master, then it’s high time I read something by the writer that many of the literary “experts” consider one of America’s most influential writers.

Color me obtuse, but I don’t get all the hoopla surrounding the man. While As I Lay Dying isn’t necessarily a difficult read—the chapters are short and cut back and forth between characters—neither is it a particularly interesting read. When I read fiction, I want to be entertained, made to think and most of all, be given characters that I don’t necessarily have to like, but I’d prefer to care about them. None of the characters in this work by Faulker, considered one of his “celebrated” novels, warrants the least bit of compassion, empathy, or any other emotion.

While I’ll finish the novel this evening, having read it in about 2 ½ days, I don’t feel that it’s added anything to my understanding of fiction, or so-called classic literature.

Granted, I do have to keep in mind that when Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying, the style apparently was experimental for his day, with its stream of consciousness narrative and abundant characters, all telling the story in a series of monologues.

While more learned and erudite people than me, men and women worthy of the title of scholar, insist upon Faulkner’s brilliance as a writer, I just don’t get it. Here is an example of a lot more analysis concerning As I Lay Dying’s character of Cash than I came away with. While I saw him as a man without personality or any other trait that might commend him to the reader, this article supplies a great deal of information that I apparently overlooked in my more literal reading of the text. Then, there is this “feminist” take on Addie Bundren, the deceased character that the book centers on. I took Bundren’s character to be the “unnatural, loveless, cold mother whose demands drive her family on a miserable trek to bury her body in Jefferson”; apparently others got that same sense in the normal, literal reading that one usually engages in while reading a work of fiction. However, there is much more going on here, as any good, post modern feminist would posit from the text.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, particularly people for whom reading is more of a chore than anything. Maybe that’s why so many of our public school students develop an aversion to reading while in school. They associate reading with activities that are more duty than an act of pleasure. I remember clearly, those days of sitting in English class in high school, someone who liked to read, but never "getting" what the teacher was talking about in describing writers like Faulkner, Hemingway and other "heavyweights" we were compelled to read. Even today, better informed and hopefully, better-read (at least when it comes to many subjects in the non-fiction category), I still don't get most of the literary analysis/criticism that I've briefly perused about Faulkner's book. Granted, I’m not an English major, nor a teacher, so I can’t explain why reading Faulkner, or any of the other so-called classics are considered requirements for a well-rounded education. All I know is that this is probably the only book I’ll read by this American author, despite the apparent need to read "giants" like Faulkner three to four times.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Long live vinyl!

Records are a wonderful thing. Granted, I grew up at a time when vinyl was it, as far as listening to music was concerned (ah, yes; I forgot 8-tracks). While the argument that technological “breakthroughs” such as cassettes and even CD’s (what ever happened to DAT’s?) made music more convenient, I still have a hard time getting the same rush of excitement from handling the sterile plastic of a jewel case or other newer methods of preserving music. While IPods and other MP3 players have their disciples, I’m pleased to have my stack of vinyl and a Technics turntable.

Albums have made a comeback with the popularity of hip-hop and sampling, which I rate as a good thing. For vinyl junkies aficianados, might I suggest a trip into Portland to restock your vinyl library?

Most small, indie labels such as Scat, Merge, BOMP! and others still list vinyl as an option for purchase. Finer record stores, usually of the smaller variety also carry a selection of music on vinyl.

If nothing else, in a post carbon world, your vinyl might become like gold. Possibly for sale to melt down and run your vehicle?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Guided by Pollard

Hey!! I’m more than just issues and agitation about Wal-Mart. I also like music and I dug out the guitar tonight, tuned it up and ran through a handful of tunes.

Speaking of tunes, Robert Pollard, the songwriting genius behind Guided by Voices has signed with Merge and will be releasing the double album he’s been threatening for years. The release date will be January 24, 2006, one day after my own birthday.

Watched an interesting documentary, titled Dig!, last night about Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor, of Dandy Warhols fame. Newcombe, is a tortured genius in the Roky Erickson school of reality.

It’s a sure bet you won’t find either the Pollard release or that documentary at your local chain store. I would guess that Videoport has the documentary and I’m sure Bullmoose will be carrying Pollard’s disc. For anyone wanting to know more about the genius behind the music, check out the new book, Guided by Voices: Twenty-One Years of Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll (Grove Press, Black Cat 2005). Definitely worth putting on your Christmas shopping list for that fan of the rock.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Seeing the movie; making a difference

I attended the USM screening of Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost last evening. Sponsored by a broad-based coalition of groups including Maine NOW and P.O.W.E.R. (Portland Organizing to Win Economic Rights), as well as various labor organizations, the movie was worthwhile, despite some early technical glitches that delayed the start of the showing about 25 minutes. The nearly packed Luther Bonney auditorium became a bit antsy waiting for members of Maine NOW to figure out how to use the projection technology. The frustrating delay, the movie’s 98 minute running time and my desire to get home after a long day prompted me to join numbers of people foregoing the discussion taking place afterwards.

The movie hammered home many points that I was already familiar with. Yet, seeing them grouped together, with stories of actual people economically, physically and emotionally harmed by Wal-Mart provided added motivation for me to do more to stop the Wal-Mart juggernaut.

NOW was handing out buttons with the slogan, “Wal-Mart Always Discriminates”, a play on the company’s slogan of “Wal-Mart—Always the Lowest Prices”. Wal-Mart violates so many basics of human decency, that make it deserving of much of the criticism and actions beings directed its way.

An employer with a miserable record towards women and minorities, it has built its international retail empire by denying workers a living wage, adequate health benefits, and equal opportunities to advance.

The most powerful part of the film for me was the real life struggles faced by two families and their businesses that Wal-Mart crushed when they came to town. The Hunter family’s hardware business in Middlefield, Ohio, started by the grandfather in 1962, was forced to close its doors after 43 years, after the gala opening of a Wal-Mart. Additionally, three IGA stores, owned by Red Esry, went out of business in 1995, when Wal-Mart came to Cameron, Missouri. Esry, founded his first supermarket in 1970. When Wal-Mart came to the area in 1995, aided by millions of dollars in subsidies, Red lost almost half of his business overnight. He appealed to the local government and cut costs, but refused to stop paying his employees a decent wage and continued to provide them with full health-care benefits and a pension package in reward for their loyalty and hard work. None of the subsidies given to Wal-Mart were made available to the Esry family. What did Red Esry get for his efforts at being an honest and ethical businessman and a model business owner? After two painful years of Wal-Mart’s unfair practices, Red was forced to close down.

The end of the film highlights the many communities that are taking a stand against Wal-Mart’s predatory practices and jihad on small town America. Rather than merely magnifying the negative, portraying Wal-Mart as an evil empire, the last part of the film provides positive empowerment to ordinary citizens, helping them to adopt the belief that they have the power to organize and stand up for the values that built their communities.

As I sat in the auditorium, seeing municipality after municipality, roll out the red carpet with tax breaks and incentives given to Wal-Mart that weren’t offered to other business, I thought about my local paper, and its coverage of a taxpayer revolt occurring in Auburn, Maine. Knowing that Wal-Mart had come to town a decade ago, only to close its existing building recently and move across the street to build a super center, I wondered how many irate taxpayers in Auburn were regular shoppers at the local Wal-Mart. Recognizing that the community now had an empty building that will become difficult to fill, due to its size, I wondered how Auburn’s tax policies towards Wal-Mart and many of the other big box albatrosses that the town has acerbated with these tax increases. As I glanced at today’s front page of the Lewiston Sun Journal, there is a picture of the Wal-Mart store, with a graphic showing Wal-Mart receiving nearly $80,000 in tax breaks. Meanwhile, local homeowners have seen 50 percent increases in their property taxes.

The moral to this story and my pseudo review of this worthwhile documentary is this; our actions do have consequences. We can’t have everything we want, when we want it, without others suffering from our selfishness. To watch this film and be aware of the pain and exploitation that Wal-Mart perpetuates and not find better alternatives seems suicidal, if you care about people and place and the communities of Maine and other areas of the country.

I am more optimistic after seeing the film, knowing that others are taking up this cause. I think the tide has turned and more and more Americans are looking for alternatives to shopping at Wal-Mart, choosing to forego mindless consumerism, for a more thoughtful and deliberate way of purchasing their products.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Wal-Mart: Killing a small town near you

Local sustainable economies are the best way to ensure healthy communities, whether you live in Maine, Florida, Missouri, or California. Keeping commerce close to the people keeps it in the hands of local owners, often family-run, and most importantly, accountable to the members of that community.

It is the advent of box store retail, particularly the Wal-Mart phenomenon, that has crippled local economies and more than anything else, killed the sense of community across our nation. When people decry the loss of familiarity, closeness and civic spirit in our towns and cities, forsaking the local business down on Main Street to shop at Wal-Mart is a primary cause of that loss.

The most frequent excuse given by the uninformed and ignorant for shopping at Wal-Mart is that merchandise is cheaper. It is for those people that Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is must see filmmaking. This feature length documentary once and for all puts to bed the notion that Wal-Mart’s low prices are without consequences for each and every one of us who value life before the mega store. This retail giant has enacted a civic jihad against small towns across the country and this documentary clearly lays out the damage that has been done by low prices, all the time.

With a clear presentation of the facts, documenting the damage inflicted, this film clearly indicts the Walton clan for its predatory retailing and destruction of an American way of life—American Main Streets and local business districts. For instance, in the film, mention is made that when Wal-Mart opens a store in Maine, on average, $7.8 million dollars are taken from small and family-run businesses during the first year of operation.

Next week (November 13-19), 400 organizations have come together to offer public showings of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. In Maine, there are several showings taking place at the following locations:

November 15, 7pm-Portland/USM (Luther Bonney Auditorium)
November 18 and 19, 7pm-Brunswick/Bowdoin College (Sills Hall)
November 20, 7pm-Damariscotta/Skidompha Library (Porter Auditorium)

I hope as many people as possible see this important film. After seeing it, if you still think it’s in your best interest to shop Wal-Mart, then you’ll only have yourself to blame for killing our local communities.

A fix of fiction

I don’t read a lot of fiction. When I do, it’s usually when I have some rare leisure time, as I had recently on a brief trip to Florida. I grabbed a bunch of books by some well-known and critically acclaimed writers, but the book I enjoyed the most was written by a fiction writer better known as a singer/songwriter than as an author.

I picked up Bill Morrissey’s book, Edson (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996) at the Portland Public Library before I left. I had a couple of other recommended books, but thought I should have an “extra” on hand, just in case.

Morrissey, with 11 albums to his credit since 1984, is a respected name in the new folk movement. His songs have always been literate and evocative. A songwriter with the gift for painting intimate portraits of people, particularly those living in the small towns one finds scattered throughout New England, the transition to author in 1996 appeared to be a seamless one.

Edson tells the story of Henry Corvine, a folksinger whose career has ground to a halt and he ends up holed up in a fictional mill town in New Hampshire. Having put away his guitar after becoming burned out and disillusioned after he is dropped from his record company, Corvine could be countless singers, who give up after grinding out their craft in coffeehouses and bars across the country. Because Morrissey brings a wealth of similar experiences to his prose, Corvine, as well as the other characters in Edson are believable and make the reader care what happens to them.

Without being overtly autobiographical, Morrissey’s only foray into fiction made me long for a follow-up. While not a household name like Richard Ford, Tim O’Brien and other better-known writers covering similar terrain, Morrissey more than holds his own in the genre.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the rhythm of small town life and the battles that working class people wage to make a living and remain human. Morrissey gives us an accurate portrait and one that was difficult for me to put down.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Mayhem in the streets

I’ve just returned from a self-imposed news fast of nearly a week. For me, that is quite an accomplishment, as I spend a solid hour or more each morning scanning my news sources via the internet, prior to blogging and starting my day.

There are a number of things that I’ve come to on the backside, one of which is the rioting that is occurring in France. It’s been interesting to read the different accounts, particularly some of the spin being given by members of the right-wing in our own country.

There have been frequent attempts to attribute the rioting to Muslims and some have gone so far as to see terrorist ties to the burning of automobiles and the general reign of chaos visited upon French cities and suburban areas. I suppose this helps to further the simplistic, skewered worldview of many on the right-leaning end of our political spectrum.

Juan Cole helps to dispel these myths and others concerning the riots and helps intelligent readers get a handle on the issue. For those who are historically-challenged, American cities had similar outbreaks of rioting during its own not-too-distant past, in Detroit, Watts in LA, and Newark, to name but a few cities where similar events happened during the 1960’s. The Rodney King verdict touched off rioting in LA in the 1990’s and even the recent events associated with Katrina have illustrated the fragile balance of civility in our own backyard.

Many of the xenophobic, anti-immigration types of the Republican Party are attempting to make political hay, by saying that the riots have occurred because of France’s immigration policies. In reality, France has done a poor job incorporating their immigrant population, most of whom came from the continent of Africa to fill the many unskilled jobs necessary in France’s booming economy of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Despite filling a need, the French government never felt an urgency to provide them with the same economic opportunities and accommodations of “true” Frenchman. Like in our own nation, racial problems usually can be traced back to an economic origin.

As Cole points out,

“The French have determinedly avoided multiculturalism or affirmative action. They have insisted that everyone is French together and on a "color-blind" set of policies. "Color-blind" policies based on "merit" always seem to benefit some groups more than others, despite a rhetoric of equality and achievement. In order to resolve the problems they face, the French will have to come to terms with the multi-cultural character of contemporary society. And they will have to find ways of actively sharing jobs with minority populations, who often suffer from an unemployment rate as high as 40 percent (i.e. Iraq).”

Sounds a bit like those in our country that demand a seemless assimilation, yet feel no need to treat one’s heritage and country of origin with recognition and respect.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The land of sun

Just back from a four day junket in sunny Florida, courtesy of some budget tix via discount airline, Allegiant Air, out of Portsmouth, NH. While I certainly could have used a few more days to bask in the warmth of 85 degree Daytona Beach, the sun and surf did me and the Mrs. a world of good.

While many think of Florida merely as a place of theme parks and other tourist accoutrements, I always manage to find some great local elements just off the beaten path of the major highways and other tourist lures. This brief trip yielded the wonderful town of Deland, home of Stetson University and a place rich in history and prime Florida heritage hearkening back to an era before condominiums and gated communities.

While we were in town, a group of local film buffs going by the name of Cinematique, were hosting an independent film festival. We got to take in a Saturday offering of a wonderful film that has yet to be released, as the director is still seeking a distributor for her movie.

While Daytona Beach has received more than its share of notoriety, mostly for being the former home for some raucous college spring breaks each February, plus the annual biker’s week in March, it is mostly known as the “birthplace of speed” and the place where NASCAR got its start, back before it became the national sport of trailer park nation. For those who follow the sport in the same way that others follow baseball and the history of the pastime, Daytona Beach is racing’s equivalent to Cooperstown.

After spending some sun soaked days of temperatures in the mid-80’s and evenings rarely dropping below 65 degrees, my return sees the mercury plunging into the 20’s and the necessity of a wood fire to ward off the chill.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The right-wing gets their man

It appears that President Bush's nomination of Judge Samuel Alito, Jr., has given his conservative base the nominee they were looking for. With a judicial record that is to the right of both Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist, Alito's nomination is sure to cause some fireworks on the hill. The talk is that the nominee might finally give us the fight that many have been waiting for. Rumors of a filibuster abound and the "nuclear option" has been seen falling from the lips of some media types.

From overturning Roe v. Wade, to allowing race and disability-based discrimination, as well as being anti-worker, supportive of unauthorized strip searches and showing hostility towards immigration, Alito shows himself to be a friend of the brown-shirted ways of the Bush administration. Confined Space has a pithy work up on the good judge. For a more thorough and detailed look at exactly what the president is offering us, the Alliance for Justice has the goods.

If the Democrats can't get energized on this, then there isn't much hope that they will provide opposition on anything.

Fair taxation and the true tax cheats

Recently, Warren Buffet, one of the world’s wealthiest men, shared his opinions about the dangers inherent in the disproportionate hoarding of wealth taking place in America. Buffet, certainly speaking against his own self-interest, said flattening our tax structure is a bad idea.

In Fortune, not a publication given to wealth redistribution, Buffet spoke against the idea of a flat tax on wealth:

“ We have, in my view, a taxation system that’s much too flat already. If you look at the payroll tax—which is over 12% now, and that applies on the first $80,000 or $90,000 of income—Bill [Gates] and I pay practically none of that in relation to our income. For the people that work for us, their tax rate in many cases is the same or even higher than my own, since the rate on capital gains and dividends was cut to 15%. What has gone on in this country in recent years is a huge benefit to the very rich and not that much relief to people down below. Frankly, I think that Bill and I should have a higher tax rate on the income we get. We pay less than half the rate that I was paying 25 years ago when I was making a lot less money. They have really taken care of the rich.”

While Buffet shows an attitude much more common among the wealthy, even in the days of the robber barons, it is becoming extinct amongst the ruling elite. For most, they'd rather skate on paying their share and upholding their responsibilities. To use religious terminology, if one is blessed, they should be willling to accept more of a burden to maintain a semblance of civic health.

We live in an age where anti-tax rhetoric and bluster permeates our culture. To the way of thinking of many on the right (and some calling themselves liberals), government, regardless of the program, is the enemy to many of those shirking their responsibilities to a civil society. In the world of regressive taxation, the argument takes the following tack—government is bad; if it provides support for the poor and marginalized; if welfare is directed towards the poor (since we know the poor are lazy and shiftless), then welfare encourages sloth, which of course, we know that God frowns upon.

Interestingly, in focusing our sights on the issue of welfare, we frequently find most of the greatest abuses are at the corporate level, rather than poor people getting over on the system. Let’s start by looking at corporate welfare versus caring for the needs of the poor. Currently corporate welfare represents a $170 billion payout, compared to the $51 billion that goes to those “cheats” who won’t work. Breaking it down, corporate welfare costs you and I about $1400 per year, while helping the needy costs approximately $400.. Since the 1940s, corporations have paid less and less each year, to where they now pay half percentage wise of what they did 60 years ago. Common sense (which seems to be in short supply) indicates we could pay for the neediest Americans by just having corporations pay what they are supposed to pay.

In a country where so many bask in the glow of our nation’s religious heritage, it's interesting that the Christian religion looks unfavorable on greed and avarice. This contradiction of what religion teaches and America’s economic disparity is telling. One might think a few of our religious leaders and Bible-toting politicians might give us some direction on the matter, rather than rely on Mr. Buffet to talk some sense about the issue. Obviously, in a nation that assigns prestige to the accumulation of wealth, the words of a man of Buffet’s stature carries weight on the subject matter of which he speaks.

Without taking a radical approach at all to wealth redistribution—hell, let’s just start with the rich and corporations paying their fair share—common sense and anecdotal evidence lends credence to the need for government to address the growing income chasm, between the richest Americans and the others across the abyss. A return to a more progressive system of taxation would be one area where government could begin, if they had the will. Instead, the current assortment of scoundrels in Washington continue their reverse Robinhood approach, as they dismantle our nation's social safety net.