Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Open letter to Canada...

Dear Canada, 

Hey.... it's the USA dropping a line! Just wanted to write and tell you how sorry we are for your Rob Ford. He just has to be our fault and we're very, very sorry. No matter how patient, sane, well meaning, or positive anyone is, no one can stand up to the onslaught of stupid shit going on here, which is probably spilling over into your country. 

Being so close to us, you have to watch and listen to our far-right politicians whining that Obamacare is government intrusion and over-reach even as these same knuckleheads pass law after law that allows that very same government to reach farther and farther into the vaginas of American women. 

You stand as a silent witness as we keep walking to the edge of the fiscal cliff, almost bringing about global depression by playing childish games with our debt-ceiling. 

You suffer as we put up more and more impediments to your crossing our northern border, a border shared by a staunch ally and one of our largest trading partners.

You have to put up with spilled-over TV and radio broadcasts that include pathologically stupid people like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and the far-right-of-right-wing voices of Sarah Palin, Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin, and any number of Faux News folks paid to speak without thinking. Even some of our left-wingnuts, like MSNBC's own Martin Bashir, can be mean-spirited and crazy-making as they practice their own special brand of ready-fire-aim commentary.

It's small wonder that anyone could wade through this flood of fools and stay dry and clean.

So it's not at all surprising that Toronto's own mayor, the Honorable Rob Ford, has finally... er... cracked and turned to drugs and alcohol, as well as to the Olympic-class gibberish-spouting usually reserved for our most dumb-assed politicians and mean-spirited talking heads. Sure, you fairly and squarely elected Stephen Harper as your PM, but it could be argued that he'd been hanging around with folks like Bush 43 and his handler, Darth Cheney, so Mr. Harper is probably our fault as well. Anyway, please know that it's not been easy for us either and we all (well, some of us) feel really badly about all of it. 

Hey, look at the bright side! Before you know it, Mr. Ford will be a distant memory and you'll be back to being aghast and agog at one of our holier-than-everyone politicians once again opining about this or that end-of-times-inducing activity or at our absurdly abiding anxiety that someone from Canada might try to bring a gun into a country that already has five times more guns in it than Canada has people. You might even miss Rob, who knows?

Please take care and write when you can. 
Your friend,
The United States of America

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Honk if you haven't heard this...

I've watched and read a considerable amount of what's been televised and published about the ACA rollout's undeniable cockup, but in all of it I've yet to hear any one of the Republicans blasting away at Secretary Kathleen Sebilius say, "How can we help to get this working?" 

Not one.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Beware the buzzkill...

Several years ago I started reading Noam Chomsky and became a total buzzkiller. Allow me to explain. 

A good friend had been raving about Chomsky for years, about his intellect and perspectives, and my friend suggested I give Chomsky's stuff a look. I did. I was so taken with Noam that I bought everything I could find at the time and just immersed myself in it all. After ingesting about four or five books over a two-week period I found myself in a funk, a dark place in which I'd never before found myself. 

I couldn't seem to shake it. I couldn't view anything around me without this state of thinking and feeling coloring what I was seeing, what I was doing, what I was perceiving. I was finding cause to rant about just about everything, driving my friends nuts. "Hey, lighten up," they'd tell me. I couldn't hold a normal, civil conversation with anyone without interjecting some aspect(s) of what I'd read in a Chomsky piece. This started to happen during seemingly innocuous conversations, about music, or about sports, or about pretty much anything. I was driving my friends nuts, which was driving me nuts. 

During a conversation about this with my wife, she suggested I try backing off reading so much Noam, and maybe interspersing it with something a bit lighter, a bit less weighty, like fiction. 

It worked.

I'd always enjoyed reading, and this was coupled with a strong feeling that I was out of touch with current and historical events. Reading Chomsky seemed to be the perfect solution: read about what I felt I was lacking. 

My overload was not Noam's fault. Noam was just being Noam. He still is and you have to love him for it. I still read him, as well as Chris Hedges and many, many others, but I do so in much smaller pieces and always intersperse it with escapist fiction to maintain balance. I've not fallen into the funk overload since then and I'm far happier, and so are my friends, I'm sure. I know my wife sure is. 

Long, long ago I came to realize that what I thought at the time were original, unique ideas and views I was developing were actually nothing of the sort. I was merely thinking along lines shared by others, maybe millions of others. The important part, though, was what I did with those ideas and thoughts: did they offer balance or buzzkill? I wonder, therefore, if something similar happens to anyone who might be immersing his or herself in the writings of folks who are sure they have the truth, who are sure they're right, and these could be folks on the right or on the left. Maybe people who watch too much Fox News are doing the same thing to themselves as I did with too much Noam Chomsky, who is as far from what Fox News espouses as one can get. But maybe there is a parallel. 

Finding balance is the key, I think, and leaning one way too much, right or left, makes it impossible to balance yourself, figuratively as well as literally. Balance or buzzkill? Which will it be?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Created a Healthcare.gov account...

Today I was able to create a HealthCare.gov account and have it verified, all on line. This was the first time I tried it. 

The server did seem a little pokey, but no worse than many business servers I've encountered and better than others. The account creation process was intuitive and logical. It took me no more than 10 minutes. Most of the effort I expended revolved around taking some easy steps toward account identity protection, which involved selecting security questions and answers and responding to three or four "trick" questions having to do with a simple credit history check. This really was a painless process. 

We're applying for health insurance under the ACA because our $1200-per-month COBRA health insurance will expire in January 2014. Today was the first step. The next step will be to shop on line, which is a pretty cool feature considering every attempt to shop for health insurance prior to the ACA involved having to talk to really annoying insurance brokers and receiving (and occasionally responding to) their incessant, prying, and equally annoying phone calls and emails. 

So far so good.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

ACA Rollout Hearing: I could be wrong, but...

I've been watching the hearing in which HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is being questioned about the stuttering, stumbling roll-out of the Affordable Healthcare Act website. The hearing has been remarkable in its consistency, left and right. 

The folks on the left side of aisle keep showing their ACA support while expressing irritation and frustration, but it's clear these folks want the ACA to work (even though many of them wanted single-payer Medicaire for all, ideally). 

Meanwhile, the folks on the right side of the aisle keep proving they have no desire to see it work and are clearly delighted that the rollout has stumbled, even as they express their mock irritation and want us all to believe they're suddenly deeply concerned that things aren't working too well. 

A couple of things come to mind. 

A large number of states refused to declare their own state-based exchanges, which were the original plan for the ACA, and they instead entered the national healthcare exchange, whose portal is the healthcare.gov site, which is having so many implementation problems and about which this hearing is being held. In almost every case, the states with their own exchanges are seeing popular support of the ACA, seeing thousands of people enrolling, seeing premium prices going down on average, and seeing users having little to no difficulty/problems with their web portals or their state-based implementations of the ACA. 

On the other hand, in almost every state that deferred starting its own health exchange and whose state representative(s) is(are) at the hearing today, problems are being reported, albeit being reported anecdotally (and possibly being exaggerated but I will admit if I'm wrong about this). Many if not all of these same states sued the US Government (or the IRS) to get the ACA repealed because of their disagreement with the individual-mandate portion of the ACA (which was ruled to be constitutional by the SCOTUS), many of these same states are run by the very people who have publicly stated they want the ACA to fail, or simply be repealed, defunded, or all three (and have unsuccessfully voted over 40 times to have this happen), and many of these same states have representatives who routinely cry "states rights" when they perceive overreach by US Government yet are blithely willing to give themselves over to a federally run portal for the ACA. 

Is it possible that there is a real connection here? Is it possible that the implementation of the ACA, which, again, had state exchanges as its original intent (i.e., not a single national exchange), might have gone far more smoothly had these complaining states instead chosen to help everyone, and to at least help their own populations, by creating their own exchanges? 

Put another way, is it possible that the implementation of the ACA, which was voted on, passed, became law, survived SCOTUS oversight, and is now up and running might have had a cleaner rollout if all the United States of America had taken part, had pulled together, and had worked earnestly to make this thing happen, rather than to complain, resist, sue, waste time, posture, obfuscate, and generally demagogue, deny, and decry something that such a truly small portion of the US population really needs? 

It's amazing to me that these same folks who have so obviously worked against the ACA --- none of whom has offered any alternatives aside from repealing or defunding it --- are now asking us to believe they are genuinely outraged that the ACA's rollout isn't going more smoothly. They are now also the ones bitching most loudly about the money that has been spent on this rollout, which is a pittance compared to the good it will eventually do but plain miniscule when compared to the $24 billion these same fools cost us all by shutting down the US Government in order to try to get the ACA repealed, defunded, or both, which everyone (including these same fools) knew was not going to happen, ever!

The truth is that they're delighted the ACA's rollout isn't going more smoothly, and any one of them who says otherwise is just lying. Meanwhile, folks in their states are suffering and being grossly misrepresented by these posers.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Squeezebox Rebuffering Problem with Netgear 4G Router

Posting this for anyone doing a search on Squeezebox buffering problems. This is not a "normal" blog entry. Please ignore it if you do not have a Verizon/Netgear 4G router and a Logitech Squeezebox Classic Wi-Fi music player.

I recently started using my Squeezebox player again to play music in the music library I have stored in a 500 GB external hard drive. Almost immediately I started getting a rebuffering problem that I had never before encountered with this player and custom-built desktop PC running Windows 7. This system always worked flawlessly. 

The problem manifested itself in the form of my Logitech Squeezebox player stopping playing momentarily but frequently as this rebuffering took place. The rebuffering message would appear on the Squeezebox player's screen. The problem seemed chronic and was certainly annoying.

I tried a number of things to fix the problem, but it kept happening. I finally found a forum page that suggested changing the Wi-Fi channel, as some are more commonly used by Wi-Fi users. I found that channel 6 seems to work much better: so far, no rebuffering problems. Perhaps no one close by our home is using channel 6 as much as the channel I was on, which was channel 3.

So, if this information can help someone else out there, cool!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Again, and again, and again...

Right after the last national election, an election that easily put President Obama into his second term, the Republican Party was seen to be doing some wholesale soul-searching, trying to assess where they went wrong, attempting to address those issues for the future. 

Was it the Romney candidacy and his 47% comment? Was it the lack of appeal to minority voters? Was it the lack of an appeal to middle-aged white men? Was it the wrong-headed messaging about women's health and reproductive issues (see "forcible rape," "rape is God's will," et al.)? Was it general mean-spiritedness seen in the forms of truthers and birthers and voter ID laws? Was it just thinly veiled racism? 

Whatever it was, it would seem little was learned by the GOP, and so little appears to have changed for the GOP.

Since then we've seen...
...a Republican official in Alabama referring to "lazy blacks";
...a North Carolina GOP representative facetiously not calling President Obama a traitor because he hasn't seen the president do anything against Kenya;
...the GOP's junior senator from Texas suggesting Kenyan email scammers built the Healthcare.com website;
...a Minnesota GOP senator saying she sees signs of the end times because of Obama's weapons deliveries to Syrian rebels;
...numerous new state initiatives to curtail women's health and reproductive rights;
...numerous new state initiatives to disenfranchise minority and senior voters, who routinely don't vote for the GOP;
...the far right of the GOP shutting down the government for political gain;
...the far right of the GOP bashing the GOP moderates to an unelectable pulp.

And now, as a result of all this and more, we have little-to-no evidence that the GOP learned anything from the last election. 

Put another way, we have enormous evidence that GOP hasn't learned a damn thing and that it's doing the same things again, and again, and again and expecting something different to happen, which is... well... we all know what it is. 

If they're expecting a result that's different from the last election then they'll prove to be every bit as crazy as the crazies who are doing and saying all these crazy things already appear to be, and the GOP will hurt itself again... and again.. and again...

Update, 3/24/15: With the GOP now having regained control of congress, it is once again about to park the Campaign's Clown Car at the curb so that a dozen or so would-be candidates can emerge and do the same thing they did last time: tear one another down so badly that no one will be left standing who has even a prayer of being elected. It's not because the Dems have unbeatable candidates; it's because for the last couple of election cycles, the GOP has been ensuring the Dem's candidates are unbeatable by repeating the same proven-to-be-doomed behaviors. Will they make it three in a row?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Inside the echo chamber...

Currently there seems to be a rippling disruption in the right-wing blogosphere regarding an Arkansas teacher’s recent assignment to have students perform an academic exercise to “rewrite” the Bill of Rights. The text of the assignment is available in several places and, while not exactly perfectly written, clearly suggests, at least to me, a hypothetical case with hypothetical parameters. The use of hypotheticals is a common tool for teachers. I know because I used them a great deal (and to good effect) in my classrooms. Perhaps this teacher didn't point this out to students. I don't know.

Anyway, this particular assignment makes the following (I believe hypothetical) statement: the government of the United States is currently revisiting the Bill of Rights. Please note the lack of quotation marks, which is intentional.

Meanwhile across the country, an educational initiative is underway, called Common Core, to standardize curricula across state lines and among states, and is being sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Even as a majority of states have adopted these Common Core standards, a majority of conservative groups are, perhaps not at all surprisingly, criticizing these standards. Moreover, some in the conservative media (Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh, among others) have suggested Common Core is a naked power grab by President Barack Obama, referring to it as "Obamacore."

Now, back to the assignment. Doing a simple Google search on the text string, the government of the United States is currently revisiting the Bill of Rights, I found it, verbatim, in the following places: infowars.com, prisonplanet.com, storyleak.com, facepunch.com, personalliberty.com, endtimebibleprophecy.wordpress.com, ashtarcommandcrew.net, grasscity.com, dailycaller.com, 3rdeyevision.wordpress.com, thedailysheeple.com, darkpolitricks.com, oldironsides-thesilentmajorty.blogspot.com, freerepublic.com, abovetopsecret.com, mminutemennews.com, conservativesagainsttyranny.wordpress.com, patdollard.com, beforeitsnews.com, thomhartmann.com, baptistboard.com, askmarion.wordpress.com, rickmick.com, sodahead.com, and drhotze.com… to name just a few.

Almost every one of these sites is commonly viewed as a conservative, right-wing site or blog, with the exceptions perhaps being inforwars.com, beforeitsnews.com, and prisonplanet.com, which to some might qualify as pure wack-job hate sites, but this isn’t my point.

My point is that all these sites and blogs have picked up and run with the “quote” that… the government of the United States is currently revisiting the Bill of Rights (again, please note my lack of quotation marks), and have put it out there as proof undeniable that the US Government is running amok (is there ever another way to run?), that Barack Obama is behind it all, that our rights are being taken away (some are, I admit, but this has been ongoing since the whole “war on terror” began in the last administration and is another issue), that children are being indoctrinated by said government, and that the end times are upon us because of Common Core, Barack Obama, and a falling sky in the form of, God forbid, educational standards.

But let’s be clear. The real source of the assignment's original statement, the government of the United States is currently revisiting the Bill of Rights, is never disclosed in the assignment, further suggesting, at least to me, it’s a hypothetical academic exercise to get students to think critically and to actually read something (in this case the Bill of Rights), which are two fundamental skills that far too many teachers struggle to get students to master. (And raise your hand if you’ve actually read the BofR all the way through yourself. Uh huh… see?)

More importantly however, the true source of the statement (aside from pulling it from the teacher’s assignment) is never offered (or, conversely, questioned) by any of the blog sites or websites on which this statement appears, because there isn't one! And this is exactly the issue: a teacher wants to get students to think critically, even as dozens of conservative bloggers and pundits prove there is a real need for critical thinking skills by not thinking critically, by not questioning if the assignment is a hypothetical exercise, and by, instead,  repeating a statement as if it’s gospel, as if it’s a direct quote from someone in the US Government who is “currently revisiting the Bill of Rights.” Rest easy, dear reader: the echo chamber continues to function perfectly.

My hunch is that this whole assignment imbroglio is a function of all these folks believing yet another Obama-as-tyrant shaggy-dog story, and faithfully repeating it as if its gospel via the echo chamber.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Your call is very important to us...

These seven words, "Your call is very important to us," are heard every day by thousands of people calling into scores businesses around the world. These seven words are typically uttered via a recorded voice as someone waits on hold for a human to take the call, which requires the caller to navigate a bewildering gauntlet of predetermined guesses as to why the caller is calling in the first place, which never seem to satisfy the voice making these guesses or the person trying to guess at which guess to respond to, distorted music that could probably cause an Epileptic person to seize spontaneously, and occasional moments of silence that typically precede the seven words being repeated... again. 

I'm always willing to admit I'm wrong about something or at least off base, but I would argue that if the intent of these seven words was sincere, was honest, then a human (not a machine) would have answered the phone, rendering as unnecessary the very need to utter the seven words in the first place. 

Put another way, prove my call is important to you by actually taking my call! 

Look, I get that hiring enough people to field these calls is probably expensive, but it's the cost of doing business; however, if these businesses want repeat business --- and just go ahead and name a company that doesn't want this, I dare you --- then they should treat each call as if it's directly connected to its bottom line, to its bonuses, to its chances for success, to its very future in business. 

But I'm a realist: failing this, failing the ability to field every call by a human, just stop saying, "Your call is very important to us." It's disingenuous at best and tiresome at least. 

And lose the damn crappy music too. That's just annoying.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The book that each new president must read in week 1...

I've been working on a theory that I'll probably never be able to prove, and which is probably total bullshit, but my hypothesis goes something like this...

Since, perhaps, the end of WWII, and during the first week of his first administration, each new president has been handed a book that he's asked to read cover to cover. From Eisenhower to Obama, this book documents the reality of "the state of things." The book grows constantly because it has to encompass more and more and more. It covers everything: the domestic economy; domestic issues; the international economy; international issues; the environment; everything. It presents the "real deal," the way things are, the inside skinny on the reality each incoming president has to face. It contains all the bad news. It presents the historical record of programs and policies put in place by previous administrations and congresses and provides the rationale for why those programs and policies must continue, must stay in place; call the book the "Law for Inertia."

The book provides the overarching reality each incoming president must face regardless of promises he might have made during his campaign. It's what causes a liberal person to move right, a conservative person to move left. It's what forces each president to seem, simultaneously, to ignore his supporters even as he angers his opponents. It's what influences many if not most of the decisions each president must make. 

Presidents are not nearly as powerful as people give them credit (or blame) for, but they do have the advantage (or the curse) of having to read "the book." And once read, the reality contained within cannot be ignored as the new president is now painfully aware of what's going on. Each new president's choice is how to deal with all this new knowledge; his (or her) choices are clearly limited because of the book. She's riding a wave of history and has to do her best to keep from falling off the surfboard. He's along for the ride (as are we all). Given this, I might argue that John Kennedy read the book and might have chosen to fight against portions of it, and look where doing so got him and his brother. (But please note I said, "might argue." I won't do this now. What's the point.)

But my hypothesis doesn't consider who might be the keepers of this book. Let's do that now.

Someone has to be the keeper of the book, and if you examine history, if you look at almost every administration, there always seems to be a sort of dark under-lord (and it's almost always a man) who is the man, behind the man, behind the man. 

As each administration goes away as they all do, this person will often stay in the public eye. He might appear on Sunday news shows, might do interviews on late night talk shows, will certainly appear on cable news shows. He might appear at symposiums, on C-SPAN, at rallies, and at other public events. While the profile of this person varies from rarely seen to too-often seen, this former dark under-lord will maintain some presence, some place in the scheme of things even after his administration has gone away. Call him an elder-statesmen, although this seems far too generous. But his place is to watch, to monitor how the book is being respected or disrespected and to comment accordingly, but always without mentioning the book. The book goes beyond politics, beyond left and right and center, beyond anything but the reality it presents.

Perhaps it's the fraternity of these former under-lords, the Cheneys, the Kissingers, that comprises the keepers of the book. Who knows. But they just might be the ones tasked with watching over it, making sure their administrations and each new administration adhere to what the book presents, adhere to its reality, and make certain the new president adheres to it as well.

Anyway... this is my theory and hypothesis. Probably unprovable, possibly paranoid, and certainly silly. Nevertheless, this possibility has fascinated me for years. 
Dark Under-Lord: "Mr. President, you must read this book."
President: "Gulp... OK."
Hail to the chief.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Firearms versus kitchen knives, baseball bats, claw hammers, etc.

As the 2nd Amendment arguments rage on, you hear and read silly things coming from both sides. 

Those against ownership rights argue the 2nd Amendment protects only hunters and sportsman, and that these people don't need military-style firearms. Those for argue the 2nd Amendment allows folks to own unspecified guns as protection from a tyrannical government, so called. 

Although some might be taking this constitutional right to absurd limits in terms of exactly what it is they believe should be protected --- with rocket and grenade launchers, machine guns, sub-machine guns, and .50-caliber sniper rifles being just some of the more questionable choices --- this latter argument, given the whole revolution dust-up that had just occurred back then, does seem to have been the amendment's more credible original intent; I honestly can't believe that Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, et al., were much concerned that sport shooters and hunters might lose their sporting and hunting rifles and handguns. But I also can't believe the clearly less-than-competent administrations we've elected in the last 30 years could come close to anything legitimately thought of as "tyrannical."

This said, a silly argument based on a fairly glaring logical fallacy (a straw-man argument) is being used by many opposed to additional limits on firearms. This silly argument goes something like this: if guns are banned because they are used to kill people, why, then, aren't kitchen knives, baseball bats, and claw hammers also banned as these have also been used to kill people in this country's history. 

To me, the answer to this is obvious. 

The latter three items are designed as tools for working in a kitchen (which usually doesn't require killing people), for playing baseball (which usually doesn't require killing people), and for building things (which usually doesn't require killing people), while guns are designed for a single purpose: killing people. In other words, this is a simple use-versus-utilize argument. 

The word use means applying a thing, a tool, say, based on that tool's original design. The word utilize means applying that tool for a use not intended by its original design. For example, a flat-blade screwdriver is designed to install and remove a slotted screw, but it can also be utilized to pry things open, such as paint cans. Yes, it could easily be utilized to kill someone, but I think it's a safe bet this was nowhere near the original intent of the slotted-screwdriver's designer. But a firearm is a different matter entirely. 

Go ahead. Try utilizing a rifle or a handgun or a grenade launcher for chopping celery, playing baseball, or pounding or removing nails. You probably won't even be able to pry open a paint can with any one of these tools.

Even as I'm certain no one you know would take a kitchen knife, a baseball bat, or a claw hammer into the woods to get a deer, I'm equally certain that most criminals, by definition, probably won't worry much about breaking a law prohibiting them from owning and carrying a gun. They're criminals, for crying out loud! They break laws all the time!

There are good points to be made by both sides, strictly on the merits of this dicussion, so let's keep this worthwhile and necessary argument to that which makes sense, and let's avoid emotional appeals based on logical fallacies and baloney.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Never thought it was possible...

About 15 years ago, my wife, a nursing school student at the time, had the opportunity to travel to Oaxaca Mexico for two weeks with a classmate as a volunteer at a medical clinic. They would stay with local families. Her friend had two dogs and she asked me if I would be able to care for them while she was gone. 

This might sound absurd, but I flat-out panicked. "I can't do that!" I said. I'd never even cared from one dog let alone two. Our family had a dog, but my dad was its care-giver. My teenaged cluelessness precluded me from doing so many things, and among these was caring for that dog. Without the necessary care-giver skills I'd be out of my depth with our friend's dogs. That was simply too much responsibility. As crazy as this might seem, I was afraid, and I can admit this only now. How could I care for dogs? 

About a year later, my wife and I made the decision to rescue a black Lab, who we named Ada, and within a couple of weeks with her, all my absurd fears, all my baseless trepidation, just melted away as I quickly learned that the process of caring for a dog just sort of happens, sort of comes to you; it's so easy. I never thought this was possible. Then a couple years after that we welcomed a second black Lab into the house, named Libby, and this too seemed so natural. 

Pretty soon I was eagerly volunteering to dog-sit for friends and looking forward to having a house-full of dogs, to being part of the pack, to embracing the usually controllable --- but sometimes uncontrollable --- mayhem that dogs bring and inspire, and to the unconditional love that flows from them easily and freely. In the intervening years, I've learned I absolutely love dogs and that I have a great aptitude with them. Now that we've lost both our dogs, and deal with the sadness such losses bring, we're looking forward to and planning for a time when we can have dogs around us again.

When discussing my historic fear of having children of my own, friends of mine have argued that I would have made a good father, to which I've always demured, with which I've always disagreed. But maybe, just maybe, they're right. Maybe I would have made a good father and maybe just maybe I have missed out on something by not having been one. I don't know, but as I approach my 60th year, I know I'll never know.

However, what I do know is that I love dogs and want to be around them for as long as I can, for as long as I live. They take your heart and then they can break your heart, but I look forward eagerly to having my heart taken again and again and again. There are only worse things than this, I think.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

It's Nothing Sweetie... Just the Wind

“... fire danger in the canyons should get worse before it gets better as the national weather service reports the strong winds from the east will continue through the weekend... turning to sports...”

Zack wasn’t interested in games as he turned off the radio in order to better hear his agent over the phone. Nor was he fooled for a minute. The jerk hadn’t heard much of the CD, but would act, when they met on Friday, as if he was Zack’s best friend on the planet. This was the part Zack hated the most: the uncertainty, the definite maybe’s, the indefinite yes’s, all the bull that was the “music biz.” He felt he wasn’t fooled, but when Bo Eschete, the jerk-agent, closed with his now traditional “Who’s my main man Babe?” Zack couldn’t help hoping that he was. 

Hope. It was the elusive elixir in Zack’s recipe for success and the strongest motivator in the mix of emotions that made Zack come West in the first place. Zack hoped his family would understand. He hoped they would accept his Exodus not as a need to run away from something, but as a need to step toward something else. He hoped his songs were good enough even as his friends back in East Lansing raved about them. All the while, Zack hoped. As he set down the phone, his mind ran through the familiar scenario once again. Had he done the right thing? Was Hollyweird where he should be? Was it where he belonged? Were his songs really good enough, or were the well-worn wheels that brought him West spinning uselessly?

“Tune in again Friday as we find what fate may befall our yet-to be-crestfallen hero,” he laughed anxiously to himself.

Tired of pondering the new mysteries tomorrow held for him, Zack fell upon the old mystery of his celebrity back home. To his friends he had become some sort of a heroic figure, a legend. They saw his departure as an event, an artistic crusade, an adventure from which they were certain he would return triumphant. He would “make it,” and they told him so, but they really didn’t know what it was like or what it would take, and Zack didn’t have the heart, or maybe the courage, to tell them. Sure, he told them what things could be like, veiled in the guise of what he wished them to be, but not as they truly were. He avoided the truth, spared them of it. He told them of the Hollywood Hills parties he had attended, and of the “majors” he had met. What he omitted was that these majors had only a minor interest in him, and to his friends he echoed Eschete’s “things will break big time”; however, he wasn’t always certain whether this meant his career or something else.

How many other Zacks were there upon whom Eschete had cast his spell? How many others were made to believe, as Zack’s friends believed of Zack, that they were destined to be heroes? Did Zack believe it? Did he want to believe it? Yes. He could taste how badly he wanted to, but right now, the taste was bitter. Sleep was what he needed, and it came grudgingly with the wind singing its sedative song. 

 When he awoke, he realized he hadn’t dreamed. Not dreaming had become the order of nocturnal business since he had arrived. Back home he dreamed every night and sort of looked forward to it. Sometimes the dreams even seemed to mean something, but mostly they were the surrealistic stuff that earns them the name. Either way, it had been dreaming, but no more. He quickly shook this off as he did quite often now. He had been down this road too often lately and the mood swings it brought weren’t welcome. “Forget it,” he said to the ceiling, “today is another shot at it. Put on your best face.”

By the time Eschete called, Zack had already worked his way through a half a pack of cigarettes and most of the coffee pot. He thought he was ready for the pace of the call.

“Say babe, what shakes?” opened Eschete.
“Same old, same old,” Zack replied, though he knew it was he who was shaking. Was it the caffeine, or something else?
“Have we heard from Diamond Records Bo?”
“Don’t sweat Diamond man. They’ve got the CDs and they’ll come around when they hear the new stuff.”
Zack was silent.
“There is progress on the new stuff?” This came from Eschete as more of a statement than a question.
Zack closed his eyes and thought, “New stuff? What does he mean new stuff? It’s all new to them.” He wondered if this meant it was already old to them.

“I’ve got a rough 16-track mix ready Zack, but I want to touch up the backing vocals before I hand it over.”
“Great babe,” replied Eschete, “make ‘em sweet and low man.”
This caused Zack to flash on sugar substitutes and to shudder involuntarily.

“Yeah babe?”
“How does it look for the old, I mean, the other CDs we gave them?”
“They’re working them through their people as we speak; we’ll know soon for sure.”

We’ll know soon. I’ll know next week. Talk at me later. Bounce it off me maƱana. These were the fast and furious phrases Eschete used when he really should have said, “I am completely and categorically, clueless, but you’re not supposed to know that.”
Zack was shaking visibly now.
“That was a lot of work,” said Zack, “it would be nice to know what they think before I set these new tunes in stone.”
“Relax babe. We’re happening,” said Eschete, “don’t sweat it. I’m doing the lunch thing with their top people before the meet today. I’ll know everything absotively by then.”
What a fool, thought Zack, although at this point, he wasn’t certain who the fool was.
“Hey babe,” said Eschete, “who’s my main man?”
“I am,” Zack regurgitated.
Zack hung up and walked to the window to watch the trees being bent by the wind. “How far can I bend?”

He thought of home and of how his folks used to comfort him when there was a storm. How safe he felt. They would tell him not to worry, it was only wind, rain, thunder, nothing to be afraid of at all. He wanted that feeling again. He thought of home.

“Hi Mom, what’s up?”
“Zack? Is that you?”
I think so.
“Yeah. Just called to say hi.”

"Are you OK Zack? Is everything alright?”
“I’m fine; couldn’t be better. Mr. Eschete and I have a meeting with Diamond Records to discuss my contract. Things are looking great.”
Just great.
“We miss you and want you to be happy out there Zack… as long as you’re happy we’re…”
Zack, more than anyone right now, wanted Zack to be happy. Hadn’t his mother heard what he said? Things were going great.
“I miss you guys too, Mom.”
Stop shaking.
“Your father wants to say hello.”
Stop it.
“Mom? Somebody’s at the door; I gotta go.”
Please… stop it!
“Kiss Dad for me. I’ll call again soon.”
“I gotta go.” 
Zack sat and trembled like the leaves in the howling wind outside. It wasn’t the coffee or the smokes. It was Mr. Fear once again saying, “Howdy-hi buckaroo!” What was there to be afraid of? Things were going great, weren’t they? Bo was on his side, wasn’t he? His songs were good enough.
Good enough.

Friday finally arrived and at last here he was, right in the middle of the biz, right where he had wanted to be since he arrived almost seven months ago. It was Friday. The day he had been working and hoping for. Zack shifted nervously in the expensive leather chair, while he looked around the plush office and waited for Bo and the record man. 

The office had the usual office stuff: a fern here, some couch-art there, a huge desk with a college diploma on the wall behind it. He squinted to read the guy’s name: Leo Gere. Maybe just “Leo,” but probably “myfriendscallmeLG.” What was the degree? “Forestry Management!?” Zack swallowed, gagged, and almost shouted, “My fate’s in the hands of Johnny Appleseed!?” 

Shaking his head and still examining the room, Zack looked anxiously at the desk. On it, conspicuous by their difference in height, lay two piles of CDs: the one on the left towered easily at a foot and a half, while the other consisted of exactly two CDs. 

 “Hardly a pile,” Zack mused. He craned his neck to look at them because for some strange reason, he felt he shouldn’t leave his seat. Was his CD on the right or the left? Feast or famine? The lady or the tiger? Door number 1 or number 2?
“Don’t make yourself crazy,” he whispered to himself. He straightened suddenly as he heard the click of the latch in the doorknob. “Relax,” he thought, “this is it.”
“Whoa!” exclaimed Eschete as he and the record man entered the room, “I’ve never seen it this windy before.”
“I hear that,” replied the record man, “it almost blew my Beamer of the blacktop this morning.”
Zack rose for the introduction.
“Leo Gere?” Eschete said, “this is Zack.”
“Glad to know you Mr. Gere.”
“Call me LG my man, everybody does.”
Zack flinched almost visibly. Gere’s handshake reminded Zack of the fish market where he used to work during his summers at Lake Michigan. The weather was typically humid and cloudy with a constant wind that blew in from the big lake, and Zack used to love standing at the end of the long pier, looking across, wondering what was out there.
“Zack? You here?” chided Eschete.
“Yeah. I just flashed on something that… yeah… I’m here.”
“LG says the tunes have wheels babe. He shot them up a rung.”
What the hell does that mean?
“Um, wheels?” he responded.
“You know. Wheels man! They’re on their way; moving up. You know!” said Eschete.
Try speaking English for a change, thought Zack.
“I’ll have a definite read for you Monday,” added Gere, “I want to bounce it around some more.”
Bounce this around, thought Zack as he glanced down to his lap. Two more days? Why not now? What’s wrong with now? What’s wrong?”
“I was sort of hoping to have some idea today,” Zack said, as he looked from Gere to Eschete, “You did say Friday, right?”
“That’s the way the rock rolls babe. Right LG?”
“Right as rain,” replied Gere.
Forget the rain; Zack was beginning to feel the full force of the wind.

            Back in the car, as they pulled out on Sunset, Eschete shrieked at Zack.

"Listen man. If you ever pull a stunt like that again, you’ll lose me faster than you can say Johnny Appleseed.”

Zack looked at Eschete and couldn’t help wondering if he was somehow psychic.
“You told me that we would know on Friday,” Zack said almost pleading, “Today is Friday. I was counting on it.” The thought of having to wait again was almost too much to bear. It was too much.
“Listen babe, LG said it had wheels, you heard him.”
Zack heard it all right, but he had heard a lot of things these last months. He was starting to wear down from only hearing and not seeing. He was dreading the wait because he knew Mr. Fear and Mrs. Doubt would be spending the weekend again.

“It’s a windy mother,” Eschete said, perhaps trying to change the subject, “I’ve never seen it this windy before.”
Zack didn’t notice. In fact, he was noticing less and less with each mile they drove. A fog had blown around him, and it was making it harder to see anything clearly.

            When Eschete picked him up on Monday afternoon, Zack wasn’t really sure what day it was. The last two days had been a blur to him; they had melted together to the point that Zack wasn’t sure of anything. His recent inability to dream was made irrelevant by his more recent inability to sleep. At one time, maybe as recently as Friday, he was sure this was what he had come West to get; a shot at the big time, the brass ring. Just one more time around and he would reach again, straining for all he was worth. Trying to reach it, trying to grab it, trying again.
“You sure you got the right CD babe?” asked Eschete as they drove out of Laurel Canyon.
“Yeah,” said Zack from within his fog, “I got it.”

“You OK babe? You seem a little... I don’t know... you OK?”
Who’s he talking too? thought Zack.

            Leo Gere seemed to be exactly where they had left him: behind his desk with his two piles of CDs. For some reason, an image of King Solomon came to Zack. The decision maker. The giver of life and the executioner. The axe man.
“Hey babies!” enthused Gere as they sat down.
The irony of this greeting stuck Zack like a needle, but he didn’t react.
As they sat there, Gere rose and walked to the window. Pausing, he stared at the flagpole in the courtyard. Something… was… different.
“Did you bring the new CD?” he asked, still staring out.

"We got it and it’s gold man,” replied Eschete.
“Good. Before we get started… you should know… the other songs washed out.”
From deep within the mist, Zack heard, but couldn’t move.
Gere continued, “My people felt they were too derivative, too familiar. They decided to send them back to me.”
“Yeah,” said Eschete, “I figured that too.”

            This time Zack tensed only slightly and then fell back into the chair and into the rising mist, a little further this time, showing absolutely no outward reaction. Nothing. He was somewhere else now with the wind whistling wildly around him.
            Gere was still staring at the flag when it came to him. The flag was no longer straight out from the pole. The wind had stopped. A bit flustered, he turned to face what was left of Zack.
“Um, like I was saying,” continued Gere, somewhat haltingly now, “We want to run this new one up the flagpole and see who salutes.” Gere half chuckled to himself as he said this.
“Well… we should bail then,” said Eschete, “we want to miss the rush traffic. Zack?”

Zack wasn’t there anymore, hadn’t been there for some time. Physically perhaps, but only that. He just sat there, staring at his hands, not seeing them, completely still.
“Zack?” this time from Gere, “Listen man, we’ll be in touch. Don’t sweat it, it’s the biz, am I right?”

            Finally, with great effort, what was now left of Zack rose, staring at nothing and no one. As Eschete opened the door and stepped into the hall, Gere spoke again, “Zack? Are you OK?”

            Slowly, smoothly, as if his neck was ball bearings, his head a turret, Zack turned his head, his eyes glazed and unfocused, his expression blank. Looking out the window past Gere, Zack suddenly saw it all as clearly as a shiny penny in a sun-drenched pool. His attention more firmly fixed than ever before with the truth of it, now, at last, right in front of him. A smile came over his face as he turned to Gere, looked through him, and said,
“It’s nothing sweetie... just the wind.”

Zack turned and walked out, closing the door behind him.
            Now alone, Leo Gere couldn’t resist the involuntary chill that came over him as he turned to look out where Zack had looked, out the window, to the flagpole, to the flag.

“Now it’s blowing the other way,” he said.

* The End *

The Old Man and the PC: with apologies to Hemmingway

Poised for battle, barely breathing now, the icy cold CD-ROM held tightly in his clammy fist like some otiose discus, he approached his ineffable enemy from upwind. 

"It's either this or a call to customer service," he said. "Damn them," he thought. 

His desperation growing now like muskrat fur in a community center steam room, poking at the thing, stabbing like a crazed zoanthrope, swinging like a drunken golfer with broken opposable thumbs trying to sink a three-foot putt, swearing like a Christmas shopper at a cash-poor ATM.  

Once. Twice. And again. Nothing else mattered, nothing else existed, nothing. 

Spent now, sweating like an overheating hiker after a 20-mile march, his backpack full of melting Chunky Bars and a now-sticky-sweet bag of last week’s Four-Cheese Doritos, he fell heavily back to his chair.  

Gasping for breath like his niece’s goldfish in the snarling maw of an ululating alley cat, truculence hanging thickly in the room, throat full of moldering ruth, not quite sotto voce, he coarsely rasped, "Rats... where did I put that phone number?"