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.