Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Monday, August 25, 2008

This May Hurt a Bit

Culture isn't such a nice word anymore. It has developed so many linguistic applications that it now lacks a clear and concise definition, although perhaps it never had one of those anyway. Always a vague and implicit portion of the lexicon, "culture" hit a new low when it was hijacked by corporate executives to describe the atmosphere they wanted to create within their organizations. They developed "sales cultures" and "professional cultures" and all sorts of other stupid, made up "cultures". Never mind that it took ceturies for the Chinese or the Egyptians or the Cherokee or the Italians to forge their respective cultures, these MBAs, being much more advanced, sorted out culture after culture within a few meetings over lunch. To some extent, culture probably can be controlled, influenced, manipulated, perhaps even planned, but it probably shouldn't be, especially not by MBAs.

Some of the dullest people on the planet are those who are offended enough by song lyrics to become social activists. This is not a defense of some of the lyrics; clearly there are some crass recording artists who compose songs for the sole purpose of titillation or to create buzz and controversy. This, too, is pretty boring. But it is not new. And outrage over such things has not proven nearly as effective a weapon as indifference.

Anyone who believes sexually explicit or violent song lyrics did not exist before 1980 or before 1970 or even before 1960 possesses little understanding of musical history. What do you want first? The sex, the drugs, or the violence? How about the racial slurs? The list is practically endless.

"Cocaine habit mighty bad
It's the worst old habit that I ever had
Hey, hey, honey take a whiff on me."

"I stepped right back
I shook my head
A big, black nigger in my folding bed
I shot through the window
I broke his leg..."

"There was old lady Dinah
She was sitting on a rock
Had a forty dollar razor
Trying to shave that knot."

The above three passages were taken from songs by the Memphis Jug Band. All three--"Cocaine Habit Blues", "On the Road Again", and "What's the Matter?"--made it onto wax in the late 1920s or early 30s. What catch phrase was used to describe this material? "Sex, drugs and jugs", maybe?

There's much more. Try listening to "Southern Can Is Mine" from 1931 by Blind Willie McTell, "Shave 'em Dry" by Lucille Bogan from 1935, "Ain't No Tellin'" by Mississippi John Hurt from 1928. And African-American artists hardly had the market cornered on potentially offensive material. There was an unknown country singer who recorded obscene parodies of "Frankie and Johnny" and a British performer who made bawdy, double-entendre numbers.

What's the difference between the material chronicled above and some of the current popular songs, whether it's deliberately provocative dreck or legitimately gritty? Airplay, mostly. But among all the flying accusations and claims that songs make people do this or that, one fact seems too often to get obscured. How can an artist, any artist, be held responsible for how an individual responds to something? The Bible and the Koran have been proffered as defenses for murder and mayhem; so have the Beatles and Judas Priest. They're not. A song, even if it chronicles actual events, is more or less a work of fiction, unless you happen to believe Mick Jagger really was born in a crossfire hurricane.

People are, of course, entitled to wish writers and musical composers and performers were more socially responsible. They're even allowed to ask them to be, but not to force or bully them. It's a very tired act and it seems to me a new scapegoat should be targeted.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Curse of the Diverse

As mentioned in an earlier entry, election commentary here will be limited between now and November. My wagon has been hitched to Senator Obama for some time and that's unlikely to change, unless he socks his wife on national television or publicly announces his admiration for the leadership techniques of Pol Pot. Still, while the John McCain housing flap has been overreported, overexposed, and probably taken a bit too seriously, a couple points could stand further analysis.

First of all, you have to admit it's pretty funny when a guy can't remember how many houses he owns. It's not criminally offensive, as far as I'm concerned, and it doesn't mean he's unfit to be President of the United States, but it might indicate that he's spending too much time on the campaign trail and too little time at home, er, homes. I can't even definitively say that owning one house for every day of the week means John McCain is out of touch with the average American--the phrase "out of touch with the average American" is at best a nebulous and misleading one anyway--but this fact, along with a few others, does seem to undermine McCain's earlier claims that his opponent is an elitist egghead who doesn't understand--:sigh:--the average American. That's not to say Obama understands. How can you prove whether you do or not? Which "average American" do you ask? Me? An Illinois farmer? A Pennsylvania steel worker? A California citrus worker? An attorney in Atlanta? A Las Vegas cocktail server? Who is average and who wants to be? I certainly don't.

All this "average American" nitwittery segues into last week's alleged big story about Caucasians becoming a "minority" by 2042. One hardly knows where to begin, but I guess I'll start with this: so what? This "big news" is more than thirty years away. Like most forecasts and predictions, this one is subject to change, but what is the role of the individual in this one? What is the role of scientists or politicians, except that the latter group should at least be aware of shifting demographics. Maybe the economies of South and Central America will transform into vibrant, thriving juggernauts, drastically reducing the number of Latino immigrants. Maybe Ireland will have another potato famine. Maybe Canada will merge with the United States. But probably none of these will occur.

But again, so what? The headlines revealing this "news" bordered on alarmist. Whites will remain the single largest group in the United States well after 2042. They may no longer be the majority, but their numbers will still represent a plurality. And the fastest growing group, known sometimes as "Latinos" and other times as "Hispanics", are hardly a monolithic bunch. Remember, these are people of the New World, so they are a mixed breed just like us. Some look decidedly African; others resemble Native Americans; still others have blue hair and blonde eyes (yeah, I know!) To the average observer, people from the Dominican Republic may seem very similar to those from Nicaragua but, except that they speak more or less the same language, there's no reason to believe they are anymore similar to each other than Polish immigrants are to Italian ones.

Granted, Mexico remains the dominant force in terms of immigration, but denying that America is, and always has been, a little bit Mexican would be like denying British Royalty is a little bit German. Mexico shares an enormous and heavily populated border with the United States and some of our current territory used to belong to our southern neighbor. Obviously, Mexico shouldn't dictate to us what our immigration policy should be, but neither should it be overlooked that we are, despite everything, friends and neighbors.

On top of all this, biracial people make up another rapidly growing group of Americans. These individuals may identify with African-Americans, with Caucasians, with Latinos, with Asians, with Native Americans, or with any combination thereof. Even moreso than most of us, they are not so easily pigeonholed and categorized. One might argue, in fact, that we are all to varying degrees biracial. And in a way, doesn't that bring us back to square one? You know, E Pluribus Unum and all that jazz? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free? Or was all that just talk? Frankly, of course it was all just talk. No nation can ever fully live up to ideals carved on statues or printed on currency, but to stop trying on the pretext that some of us are simply "too different" from each other seems suspiciously like our citizenry declaring lamely, "The dog ate our homework."

None of this pie in the sky rhetoric means there won't be pain and hardship associated with these changes in the makeup of our population, but perhaps the best way to address this challenge is to settle down and stop treating it like a crisis. Nice and easy now. Muy bien!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

It's a Bleak... HOUSE!

There's breaking news on the allegedly under aged Chinese gymnast: the claim that she was only thirteen according to an "earlier report" has been verified, but it turns out the "earlier report" is three years old. Actually, all gymnasts look about thirteen, so it's hardly surprising some of them turn out to be.

Earlier this year, Festus Mogae stepped down as President of Botswana. There was no global grief or regret to this development, but there should have been, because it was the end of an era. For the first time in history, a nation selected as its leader someone named after an overbearing character on "Gunsmoke." This man served in office for ten years and the world seemed ignorant to his very amusing moniker.

Incidentally, Mogae's successor, Ian Khama, recently denied rumors that he wanted to amend the country's constitution in order to seek a third term, which is odd considering he has not even completed his first term. It turns out the speculation started because certain parties within the government want to abandon the two term maximum not for political reasons, but for financial ones. In other words, they just don't want to pay pensions and protection to so many ex-Presidents.

One can understand a relatively poor, lightly populated country's desire for fiscal responsibility but surely the citizens of Botswana understand as well as anyone the dangers of leaders remaining in power too long. They need only look to their northern neighbors of Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Congo for recent extreme illustrations of despotism. Granted, there are no signs of Mr. Khama, son of Botswana's independence leader Sir Seretse Khama, turning into an autocrat and Botswana has for forty years been a peaceful and reasonably prosperous outpost in the midst of a chaotic region, but whenever ideas like this surface in the developing world, caution is a common reaction.

Between Russian invasions, Olympic stabbings, Bernie Mac, Sandy Allen, Isaac Hayes, Paul Newman, rising inflation and unemployment, it wasn't easy to find cheerful news these past few weeks. What hard times hath befallen on the world? But whenever I hear the inspirational Commodores/Charles Dickens duet "Bleak House", I can't stay depressed for long.

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Nickname Is "Mr. Attitude"

People should somehow be penalized for giving themselves stupid, self-congratulatory nicknames. The fact is, nicknames ought to be issued by others, preferably friends or family members, and should generally be concise and neither too flattering nor too demeaning. "Kitten Killer", for instance, isn't much of a nickname. "Saintly Altruist" represents another misfire. From Shaquille O'Neal deciding many years ago he was "The Big Aristotle" to Bill O'Reilly dubbing himself "T-Warrior", the trend of Self-Nicknaming has gotten completely out of hand. Let's have no more of it, except among rappers. Not that some MCs don't go overboard with their handles, but who wants to hear "Mama Said Knock You Out" by James Todd Smith when it's supposed to be LL Cool J?

It appears adulthood has become a thing of the past, if it ever existed at all. But not only does adulthood seem to be dead, the terminal childhood from which many grown people suffer is a warped and crippled variety, endowed with plenty of petulant sneering and cruelty but not much wonder or joy. The workplace often serves as an extension of high school—same small-minded rivalries, same backbiting and jealousy, same explosive mix of people preoccupied with individual agendas. Unfortunately, work doesn’t seem to have very good teachers. Perhaps the instructors we had in high school were just as dreadful, but we were too young and foolish to notice.

Of course, it could be I’m just hanging about in the wrong clique. It isn’t merely that a lot of what I hear is negative, but that people really do not know how to gripe! So many seem to have a crucifixion complex, obsessed with the idea that they have been singled out for persecution by someone, somewhere, for reasons not entirely understood. I’m not against griping—I’M DOING IT RIGHT NOW—but is it too much to ask that our incessant moaning at least occasionally become amusing, whimsical, self-deprecating?

What bothers me more than anything is the current love affair with humiliation and confrontation. This is not because confrontation is inevitably a bad idea nor to suggest there are not occasions when we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back for dealing with a serious problem head on rather than cowering to avoid conflict. On the other hand, I don’t need to hear about how you told off the six dollar an hour server at Applebee’s because you asked for French dressing and not Thousand Island. Why get all self-congratulatory for browbeating an underpaid lackey? Is this how you validate your ego? What about referees at sporting events? Do you heckle them as well? How about at youth sporting events? Even more impressive.

The humiliation angle troubles me even more. I realize some people probably deserve to be humiliated, but I’m more concerned about those of us turning into vultures perching on a dead tree just waiting for someone to embarrass. If you are a frequent, or even infrequent, viewer of reality television, you have almost certainly observed this syndrome. People watch programs to see which “contestant” is going to be singled out, shown up, and sent packing. And then you’re happy because you didn’t like his haircut, or the way she dressed, or her “attitude.” Can we get rid of that last word altogether? It’s so overused I don’t even know what it means anymore. I have seen people humiliated enough. Maybe many of them have it coming, but I don’t think it’s anything to be happy about. If you can’t get your jollies any other way, perhaps you are the one who needs to re-examine your own… well, how about “outlook”?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Dime Store Phil O. Sofee With Your Coffee

Among the most tiresome declarations people can make are these pseudo-philosophical meanderings about the type of people that reside in the world: those who "get it", those who don't; those who "have it", those who don't; those who do something and those who do nothing, and on and on. It isn't difficult to see how these things get started. Most people strive to understand life as we know it but, at the same time, they are rarely prepared to conceive or explain some cumbersome, long-winded treatise. Instead, they try to boil all the folderol away and reveal the nature of humanity in a sentence or two. I appreciate this desire--in fact, I share it--but the results thus far have proved less than stellar.

So permit me to introduce my various, light labor philosophies for those who do not even have time to come up with their own.

Puzzling Philosophy
There are two kinds of people in the world, the screwheads and the damned. The damned aren't so bad but, oh those screwheads!

Monotonous Philosophy
There is one kind of person in the world and you're exactly like that!

Uncharitable Philosophy
There is one kind person in the world and it isn't you!

Conpsiracy Theorist Philosophy
There are no kinds of people in the world due to alien abduction.

Late 1980s Philosophy
There is one Nia Peeples in the world.

Paradoxical Philosophy
There are two kinds of people in the world, those who espouse inane, simplistic philosophies inevitably beginning with "there are two types of people in the world", and those who don't.

Cow Philosophy
There are kine people in the world.

For fairly obvious reasons, the Paradoxical Philosophy is my personal favorite. Since I was the one ranting about how I disliked this kind of brief, incomplete "sum up", it's only natural I'd be drawn to the one that mocks such things. Among the people with whom I've shared these, it's the late 1980s philosophy that seems to be the most amusing. What's alarming is it might also be the closest to universal truth.