Monday, April 30, 2007

The Collapse of the High Road (first of 2 parts)

I watched the Warriors game last night between updates on the collapse of a freeway interchange on the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge. A few days before that one of my favorite if not my favorite non-fiction writer, David Halberstam, died in a car crash in Menlo Park. There was another mass shooting in Kansas City, this time at a shopping mall. Astronomers found a new planet that might have water some twenty light years away from earth. The Alberto Gonzales matter continues to unfold alongside Dennis Kuckinich’s recent attempt to file articles of impeachment against George and Dick. In the meantime, there’s been the usual daily mass killing in Iraq. I know that smarter bloggers would break all these events into separate posts. In fact, I was in the midst of doing separate posts about both Gonzales and Halberstam late last week. Sometimes though, things stick together.

The last time the Cypress collapsed, it happened during the World Series in 1989 which just happened to match the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s, the first and only time btw. That was an earthquake with forty five thousand people in the increasingly creaky Candlestick Park (talk about cursed ballparks) and post-rush hour traffic still on the Bay Bridge. This was a fuel truck crashing catching fire at 3:45 in the morning with no one dying.

The more recent incident haunts me more. This was not a terrorist act, but all disasters now make me think of what a purposive act with even relatively low-tech weapons might do. Many of the 9/11 skeptics insist that a steel structure would not have melted just from the fireball from a jetliner’s fuel burning. I don’t know if this was a renovated part of the freeway post 1989, but the fact that a single tanker trunk caused a freeway overpass to collapse makes me, as a non-scientist engineer, a bit less skeptical of the capacity of everyday items to manage what even the most potent bombs from the beginning of the twentieth century couldn’t.

Last Wednesday, Retired General Robert Scates’s testimony before Congress flew well under the news on behalf of an idea called the “Language Corps.” Scates’s notion is simple. Modern wars are won across multiple dimensions. While the United States has a huge advantage technologically, its resources for fighting a cultural and diplomatic war are much more meager. At some point, you can’t just kill everyone who stands in your way. In the meantime, weapons of medium destruction like fertilizer bombs, chlorine trucks, etc. remain both easily accessible and potentially almost as dangerous as the most sophisticated nuclear and chemical weapons.

Think about it, post-9/11 we can’t exactly ban all airline traffic nor can we seriously consider doing things like eliminating fuel trucks. Both are assumed into any modern city. We can check all the passengers and trucks we want, but that doesn’t address the culture bomb. The danger only gets worse as long as the number of people who might have motives for doing these things continues to increase. It’s not perfect, but the ability to share a language and to understand what matters to someone else does help persuade people to work things out rather than to use planes as missiles and fertilizer trucks as bombs.

As I watched the Warrior game, they kept flashing pictures of screaming fans in the stands. As much as any place in America, I believe the Bay Area can claim that American culture is a suitable vehicle for cultural interchange and inclusion. People whose ancestors came from every part of the world were in there screaming in unison when Baron davis hit a 49 foot shot to end the half, stole the ball and drove for a layup to end the third quarter, and then hit Andres Biedrins , the Warriors Ukrainian big man, with a perfect pass for a layup to clinch the game. It’s possible that the Warriors will lose even this series, but this team reminds me of the 1981 49ers whom no one expected to go deep into the playoffs. There were two signature moments in that season as well. During the season, the 49ers beat the Cowboys big behind Fred Dean, acquired mid-season from the Chargers. They got to the Super Bowl against the Cowboys when Dwight Clark made “The Catch” the single greatest moment in Candlestick history in the corner of the end zone.

On Super Bowl Sunday in 1981, the Chicago Symphony performed at Davies Hall, still relatively new at the time. Before the performance, cars up and down Van Ness honked their horns continuously in celebration of the 49ers first championship. You could hear it inside Davies. In tribute, Solti changed the program slightly to play Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Overture. Wagner was very self-consciously building a German cultural identity, Germany the political entity was still relatively new, through Opera. It struck me that all those honking automobile horns were a kind of American symphony celebrating our own cultural identity that afternoon more than a quarter century ago.

At that time, another incident, the first time I ever heard of David Halberstam, was still fresh in my mind. My parents sent me off to a private school in New England for high school. Although my grandfather was wealthy, my parents were decidedly middle class. They were part of the first generation of Chinese to raise their children in the suburbs. For whatever reason, the Kennedys resonated especially strongly with my father. Joe Kennedy had been a bootlegger and my Grandfather owned a gambling house. Both had taken an interest in politics for their children as a means to completing the arc of success in America. To get his children ready, Joseph Kennedy, the scion of the Irish Catholic family, sent his sons to decidedly English-protestant Prep Schools in New England. I went to one of the schools that had been attended by several prominent JFK advisors.

When Halberstam’s portrait of how JFK/LBJ’s advisor had drifted into Vietnam came out, my Dad went straight to Tower Books because it contained some long sections about my high school. I don’t think it occurred to my Dad that Halberstam’s description wasn’t necessarily flattering though it wasn’t damning either. My Dad simply liked pointing to sections in a real book and saying “That’s where my son goes to school.”

Actually the man who had taught the presidential advisor the lessson of Munich and appeasement that got overgeneralized to Ho Chi Minh, was still teaching at my school. In any case, a few months later Nat Hentoff, the Village Voice columnist, was a guest speaker at the school and he chose the occasion to riff off Halberstam’s book and announced that “JFK’s chief advisors were war criminals.” Both the history teacher and three of the man’s sons were in the audience.

A long emotional encounter mediated by both the teacher and the headmaster ensued. Honestly, I didn’t really understand the very strong emotions of my three fellow students, none of whom I ever got to know all that well. I even sort of sympathized with Hentoff who kept saying that he’d had no idea that they were in the audience, but that he still believed that the best schools would teach people to honor the “human” impact of the decisions they made. It was a strange moment for me as well in understanding the place of this school in my life and my place in it. My parents desperately wanted me to do well there as an “open door” to a future. I was looking around at all these dope-smoking school mates, many of whom were also very bright, diligent, and committed to improving the world and thinking there was something wrong. The problem was that I never could articulate it nor could I choose between pleasing my parents and setting my own course, a fairly common adolescent issue just in an odd setting.

It struck me though that Halberstam recognized the mixed legacy of Brahmin institutions and the odd role they had played in getting us to Vietnam. I became a fan of his writing and followed him through his explorations of the fall of the U.S. Car Industry, the Fifties, the Trailblazers, the newspaper business, the Cardinals, Dimaggio’s hitting streak and Williams’s .400 season, etc. One time I gave my father a copy of Halbertsam’s Robert Kennedy book, An Unfinished Odyssey, and that remains one of my best memories of my dad. We both read the book in a single setting and my Dad kept reading passages from it aloud. It didn’t occur to me that my Dad was different in some ways. He wanted me to go to the best schools to some day make money, but money wasn’t what mattered to him. It was what one might do with money to make the world a better place that mattered.

Halberstam wrote about a huge variety of subjects starting with his early indictment of the Vietnam War. In another sense though, he always wrote the same book. Invariably, his theme was the pursuit of the kind of transcendent excellence in the world that somehow touches the soul. As I watched Bill Walton broadcast a Warriors game over the weekend, the reason why Halberstam’s writing resonated with me so much finally came home to me. He was writing about my parents’ own take on the American Dream which they wanted to live through me. (Yes, I know that one has other implications as well)

End Part I continue to Part II if you care to.


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The Collapse of the High Road (part 2 of 2)

link to part 1

Sometimes news events cross. On Sunday, a middle-aged man opened fire in a Kansas City shopping mall and killed four people. Ironically, the incident apparently ended at a “Target” store. Unlike Cho Seung-Hui, there was no mention of this killer’s race or ethnicity. I still say that one of the more interesting aspects of Cho’s video diatribe was his references to Jesus. Apparently the parents are devout Christians. Instead of people pointing to the number of mass murderers and serial killers who seem to be the product of Christian households, I kept hearing from people insisting that Virginia Tech would never have happened if kids got exposed to the Ten Commandments. No one seems to mention that Cho obviously had gotten plenty of exposure.

Here were two terrifying incidents in America, yet neither involved a Jihadist. A few years ago, it was a bit more common to say “If America can send a man to the moon, then…” The fact is that the last manned-mission to the moon took place with Apollo 17 in 1972, more than a generation ago. Can we actually still do it? Say there happens not only to be life, but intelligent life, on that distant planet orbiting a dim red dwarf star every thirteen days. If they happened to see us too, would they consider us advanced? Being an advanced species or culture is not necessarily technological. The fact that you can build and sell a Glock for four hundred dollars may take staggering technical expertise, but.... when someone who was recently ordered to mental-health counseling by a court can buy one and pass a background check, your culture is pretty freaking stupid.

Many years ago when I was a Big Brother for Big Brothers and Sisters, my Little Brother, Matt, wanted me to take him to a gun show. I’ve never owned one, but it seemed like the sort of guy thing he craved at the time. I took him target shooting one afternoon where the people were very nice, helpful, and safety-oriented and he turned out to be a very good shot. A few weeks later, we went to visit a gun show. The NRA types love to drape their defense of this odd American institution in the flag and the Constitution. They never seem to mention that by far the most popular flags sold at gun shows are the Confederate flag and various Nazi banners and other memorabilia. The only interest in our Constitution was the two lines of the second amendment. He wanted to buy a hunting knife, which his mother had said was “Okay”. I wound up buying a CD of Beethoven’s violin concerto there with Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Reiner. My favorite booth was a guy selling a vacuum-sealing machine, that would allow you to bury your AK47 and thousands of bullets confidently in your backyard in case of invasion by the Guvment, our government. It was pretty obvious to me which flags really mattered to the folks at that gun show.

If I had to do it again, I would have taken my Little Brother target shooting, but I’d never do a gun show. Every time I remember it, all I think was that it was a delivery mechanism for putting some surprisingly sophisticated weapons of medium destruction into the hands of many dozens of scary-stupid people. To be clear, I like a lot of gun owners. I just didn’t see any of the ones I like at that show. About ten percent of the tent space was devoted to hunting or target shooting btw. So what’s happened in the thirty years since we last landed on the moon? Politicians talk more seriously about preserving gun shows than they do about finding other planets that support life. Maybe they know something that we don’t, like maybe in a generation or two, this planet won’t be one of the ones that supports life anyway.

Speaking of politicians and idiocy, what’s with Alberto Gonzales? I know that Rep. and presidential candidate Kucinich dropped the I-bomb in the house several days ago, but that was aimed at Cheney-Bush. I had to look this one up, but Congress does have the power to impeach any civil officer of the United States. Way back in 1876, the House actually did vote articles of impeachment against the then Secretary of War (Defense is a 20th century term), so there is precedent for the impeachment of a member of the President’s cabinet. If the President is going to continue to support the guy and essentially say “Na, na, na”, Congress does have the option of a lower-profile I-bomb.

The Belknap impeachment
happened during an interesting time in U.S. history. It was 1876, the Andrew Johnson impeachment was still relatively fresh. Ulysses Grant was president and the country was engaged in another war on terror back then, a comparison we don’t often make these days. The fact is that the elimination of the Indians was often promoted as a way to make “settlers” safe from acts of random terror by various tribes. If you look at the rhetoric of the time in the west, there are any number of surprisingly convenient analogies.

Looking back, we see more clearly that the Indian wars were more clearly about expansion and the resources that came with it than they were about serious concerns about Native American violence. There were, in fact, real atrocities on both sides, but U.S. policy then was to negotiate only when useful. Occupation and the reservation system that came with it also was often justified as a way to Christianize the Indians, a concept not all that different from current notions of bringing Democratic ways to the Middle East.

In any case, Belknap was caught taking bribes for the rights to sell trading privileges with the Indians. As Secretary of War, he made eight thousand dollars a year. He got twenty four thousand dollars in bribes and chose whom he appointed to the position accordingly. Grant was also extremely loyal at a personal level in the face of rampant corruption across his administration. Congress chose to impeach Belknap. Belknap rushed to DC to resign prior to the House vote, but they voted for impeachment anyway. The senate trial was extremely close and Belknap argued that Congress didn’t have the jurisdiction to impeach someone who had already resigned. He avoided conviction by two votes. Belknap then practiced law (sometimes these little tidbits make me laugh) and ultimately committed suicide in 1890.

I don’t know that Alberto Gonzales committed a “high crime or misdemeanor” in the conventional sense, but what could be a higher crime than having the Attorney General of the United States fire prosecutors for being too even-handed enough in exercising their prosecutorial discretion? When loyalty to party becomes more important than competence or belief in the law itself, the Attorney General has dropped a bigger bomb on America than any terrorist.

The senate has talked about their questioning of the Attorney General as a kind of “reconfirmation” hearing. Like “hymenization” for born again virgins, it’s more theoretical than an actual legal concept. Alberto Gonzales though impeached himself with his own lack of “recall”. Even when the Republicans controlled the house and senate the actual confirmation vote for the guy was only 60-36-4
It would take a simple majority to vote articles of impeachment in the House.

It’s been more than thirty years since Nat Hentoff spoke at my high school. I now have a daughter of my own in high school. A group other than the Best and the Brightest got us into a war which likely won’t be won on a battlefield. I remember too my own parents’ fundamental optimism for the future, my future. In 1969, I thought that we might make it to Mars some time in my lifetime. I used to look up at the stars and imagine what was possible. Now, I think about the Macarthur maze and wonder if we’ll even be able to drive to Oakland in 2007.

The best news of the last few days from the greater world was that the Warriors won two playoff games. It’s not the world I ever meant to leave to my daughter.


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Friday, April 27, 2007

An Idol Ex-STARVEaganza (American Idol 6 Review)

The Grameen Foundation

When Elvis was singing with Celine Dion was I the only one who was wondering which one was digitally reanimated? Personally I thought there was enough cheese on Idol turns into a telethon to feed all of Africa and maybe Teri Hatcher too. Someone on one of the boards mentioned that she looked like Michael Jackson and that was actually the first time I realized that this was Ryan's "ex-girlfriend".

I'm not at all sure what to make of Idol's split personality this season. During the audition rounds that started with Simon and his Bush Baby comment and ended with naked pictures of Antonella Barba all over the internet, the season started with a mean-spirited sometimes sleazy edge that even Sherman Pore, the older man who got to sing a song for the judges, couldn’t soften. In fact, one of the few signs of any kind of gentle spirit at that point in the season came from the way Sanjaya Malakar dealt with his older sister Shymali when she got cut in Hollywood. At that point, no one had heard Sanjaya sing in front of a large audience or about other things about the family for that matter.

Anyway how did that leadup segue into 6 Idols wandering the stage in white suits while Ryan and the judges survey hunger, poverty, AIDS, etc. and urge America to show they care by giving all their spare change? I really couldn’t tell you, but one of the remarkable things about the show is the way that Idol serves as a cultural “Big Tent” in some pretty ingenious ways. While the Simpsons do Idol with Marge channeling Randy, Lisa doing the Paula Seal Clap, and Homer doing Simon snark was by far the cleverest bit on the show (in fact it was the only thing intended to be funny Wednesday night that actually was funny), I think Carrie Underwood’s “Back to Africa” video caught the peculiar iconography of Idol Cares best.

First, I think it was an important thing that 30 million plus Americans had to watch video of the realities of world poverty both in Africa and the United States. It was one of the first times that reality tv has ever seemed connected to the real world and its critical that that happen more not less. If it comes with promos for the show and voicovers by Ryan, Paula, Simon, et. al., it’s a small price to pay for helping me remember that the world is far grittier than whatever normally appears on my living room screen even in HDTV. Second, I thought Carrie Underwood sounded quite good on “I’ll Stand By You”, much stronger than Gina Glocksen though it’s not fair to compare live to studio. Still, there was this white angel iconography in the sequence that disturbed me. Carrie hugging HIV positive babies was both a Nancy Reagan moment and played on the same unfortunate stereotype that fed European colonialism – we’ll help you ignorant savages lead a better life and that pretty blonde lady with the nice voice is the symbol of our moral superiority. It reminded me that one idol winner really did live in poverty, Fantasia Barrino, and that she apparently wound up behind Josh Groban and Il Divo on the guest artist list.

One of the more difficult aspects of telethon or the A.I.D. culture of the eighties once spearheaded by Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World” is that it obsesses on the symptoms and almost studiously ignores the causes that lead to these horrors. We’re to assume that if all of us gave an extra fifty bucks then we woulda coulda end world hunger now. Certainly, I’d encourage people to give, but the conditions we saw on Wednesday are more structural than that. Consider the sponsors for Idol Cares. Newscorp is controlled by Rupert Murdoch of Fox News and Fox Network (Idol). In other words, giving the five million dollars on Tuesday was tied to getting more people to watch and vote for the show which sells ad revenue for Fox-Newscorpt-Murdoch. No question the gift was a good thing, but it’s not completely altruistic.

I doubt that many people have ever seen the Canadian documentary The Corporation which poses the Barbara Walters-like question, “If a corporation is a legal person, what sort of person is it?” I’m not indicting Ford, AT&T, Con Agra, etc. on this but there is a tie between colonial corporate activity in Africa and other places and current levels of poverty there.
People argue about the solution, but for coporate America to encourage Mr. and Mrs. Average American to give too to help the thousands of children in those videos ignores or, even worse, glosses over the fact that some of those institutions helped to cause the problem in the first place.

As the proverb goes, it’s giving the man the fish instead of teaching him how to fish. Making matters worse, we might be the ones who are helping to pollute the lake that’s made it impossible to fish. In the meantime, I’m not suggesting that third world debt relief is the only answer or even the right answer, but I worry sometimes that all this glitz just makes us feel less guilty and does little to address the deeper causes of poverty. For example, does anyone want to talk about why that horrific FEMA trailer park is still there and how it came into being? Heckuva job there Georgie!

I know this is just American Idol. I don’t really expect singers to start dedicating songs to Dorothy Day or attempting to be Woody Guthrie . I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy seeing Randy quote Fanon or Freire every week. I also thought Paula had a nice feel for kids and her memories of her mother working to support her dancing etc. felt very authentic to me. More important despite what I’ve said above, I applaud the show for going as far as they did in helping to raise both awareness and actual money for a great cause. I just ask that they maybe think about getting Ben Stiller and Jack Black better material next time, though how the heck can you be funny while they show endless videos of starving children?

About the music:

Really good inspirational singing gives you goose bumps. I’d say my skin neither crawled nor bumpbed as I listened to final 6.

Chris Richardson- Is this the third time that I’ve said I don’t get the judges’ enthusiasm for this guy’s singing? Eric Clapton would have unplugged this guy. Were they maybe just overcompensating for eye-roll gate?

Lakisha Jones- She’s now 1-2 in covering past Idols. She at least drew with Jennifer Hudson, though I recently saw Dreamgirls and have to mention that the actual Hudson showstopper wasn’t “I’m Staying”, it was the later ballad, “I Am Changing.” Right now, I can’t imagine Lakisha covering that one. Other than that, she still needs driving lessons from Carrie and I’d rather believe in Fantasia (I still hate that song though). That said, the judges were too hard on her, but that’s what happens when you invite the comparisons.

Blake Lewis - Imagine if Blake had a bit better voice. I feel like the guy has four fifths of the package. In the Lennon version I actually like the interplay with the piano and the way it supplies the beat behind the vocal. In the AI version, the band is so loud you can barely imagine the singer much less the song.

Phil Stacy - Wow, the Oklahoma City Bombing! You mean some terrorists happen to be American and not Moslem? I think I remember that because I was in Atlanta near Olymic square a few weeks ago. Garth Brooks and country are a good idea for this guy. It’s just that he didn’t do it as a country song. He clearly has the best voice of the remaining males, but Chris and Blake have everything else. How many times is this guy going to play the family card?

Melinda Doolittle – Okay, I’m a sucker. When Ryan pulled the big fakeout on Wednesday, you’d think I’d have been on to it. I turned to my wife and said, “Wow, they must have eliminated Melinda because that would be the only shocking elimination.”

Technically, she’s the best singer on the show. Some would say she’s the only singer. Still, as strange as it seems, her elimination also seemed possible. I haven’t been wowed by her performance in some time. Talk about a week to shine for Melinda, a great singer with strong spiritual convictions singing a Faith Hill song about God….and I come away thinking lots of nice notes and runs, but where the heck are the goose bumps?

Jordin Sparks – They used to end the Jerry Lewis telethon with this song. She was good, but she certainly wasn’t great. Unlike Melinda, Jordin seemed to be working hard to raise the goose bumps, but it still wasn’t even close for me. All the Jordin love lately makes me think “Agenda.”

Despite what the judges said, if they released this as a single, do you actually know anyone who would buy it? To tell you the truth, I don’t actually know anyone who buys singles. I do know a lot of people who file share them though and it would be interesting to see how much this is actually being shared. I don’t do that though, unless, of course, I already own a legal copy. Otherwise it would be wrong and I’d be robbing some starving record executive in Rwanda.

Sanjaya Malakar - What was up with all that gratuitous Sanjaya bashing? Yes, he's in on the joke some, but the kid really is 17. It's like the show really needs to milk the phenomenon that badly that they have to say things like "Now the real competition starts" or "You were better than Sanjaya at least."

The Most Shocking Elimination Ever - Okay, this was sort of slimy. If this was a night that was too serious and too much about giving even to metaphorically kill someone on the air, why not just announce it at the beginning of the show? Instead, they got the full benefit of keeping people watching and even thinking about the more usual Idol silliness, then tried to claim “We’re much too dignified now to do something like that.” Talk about donating your cake and eating it too!

The even deeper irony is that it was oddly metaphorical for the whole Telethon mentality itself. Somehow, Idol cares prevented one singer from being eliminated this Wednesday, but next Tuesday they get to eliminate two instead. I just did the math and the only thing that changed was that one singer got to sing for one more week. One of my fears is that if you approach the problem this way, you save a bunch of lives this year, but if you come back in ten years you just find out that even more people died needlessly. Nothing changed about the structure or causes of that kind of neglect.

I’d like to believe Bono that this generation can be the one that eliminates poverty. It’s just that it’s going to take a lot of things beyond Idol Cares to do that. I pray that we all start thinking about it seriously. Somehow, I have this feeling that Newscorp, Fox, Murdoch et. al. are really more part of the problem than the solution. In the meantime, the big picture to me was that I have this fear that it was still just a case of the Fox guarding the chicken coop.

Other Chancelucky Idol Reviews

Sir Linksalot American Idol articles

SirLinksalot Sanjaya Malakar American Idol


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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sprained Ankles and Broken Hearts (Bachelor 10 review)

"After Bevin Powers discovered that this was the way to Andy's heart, the producers had to stop the other ladies from buying all the sledge hammers in Los Angeles"

For the most part, southerners dominate reality television. I have no idea why that is, but consider the two shows I follow. Of the 5 American Idol winners, the northernmost winner was Carrie Underwood from Oklahoma. Here are some of the “winners” on the Bachelor lately, Sarah from Texas (Charley) , Sarah from Tennessee (Travis) , Jennifer from Florida (Lorenzo) , Mary from Florida (Byron). That said, imagine my surprise when Lt. Andy cut all three ladies from South Carolina and kept all three from California last night. Could this be Bachelor history in the making ? :}

A second break from form with this installment is that on the mating shows, the candidates who aren’t the same race as the Decider generally don’t make it past the second week and if they get kissed it’s more or less the kind you’d give your grandmother. Andy has kept both Tessa Horst and Tina Wu. Despite the name, Horst appears to be at least half-Chinese with one side of the family from Hong Kong. Judging from my hit reports, the Middlebury grad who also lived in Jackson, Wyoming at one point appears to be the favorite to get the final rose. She scored major points with reality fans last night when she found a graceful way to tell Andy that too many of the other ladies were already smitten with the idea of being Mrs. Doctor-Officer-Triathlete. She, on the other hand, still needed to decide for herself about things. In other words, the other triathlete in the mix has the sense to make Andy do a little chasing here.

On the bad side and it could be the edit, Tessa’s conversation is repeatedly about the like “process”, like “connections”, like “feelings” and other staples of Bachelor journey clichédom. Sometimes it sounds like she’s spent the last year only talking to Chris Harrison. I honestly don’t think Andy is a conversationalist or that his “heart” even works that way. Tessa appears to understand this well enough. As the best skier on the Heavenly Valley date, she clearly scored major points with him by having him hop on the back of her skis. They looked like, well, a pair of matched muffins who weren't necessarily talking as much as they were doing something else. I have no idea if running over Tina was part of the plan btw.

Way back when Tina Wu was singing the National Anthem, I was reasonably convinced that she was going to get the “crazy” edit. When during the mud bath date, she went into “Get your hands off the man I’m going to marry”, I was sure of it. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see her get the kind of alone time that would actually work in real life. Instead of talking about connections, the show, the other ladies, Dr. Wu asked Andy questions and forced him into a conversation about what sort of person he was etc. Although there appeared to be virtually no physical chemistry between the two (she may be the only one of the last six he hasn’t kissed), I was more than a little relieved to see her come off as a sane yet charming individual, new ground as well for super-achieving women on this show. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately for Dr. Wu, Dr. Andy appears to have a thing for the drama queens, something Tina does not appear to be. To be more accurate, Dr. Andy likes the drama queens who don’t rat out the other ladies.

Does this make the Hawaii-stationed Doctor Andy a rice fetishist of some kind? Instead of “Officer and a Gentleman” is ABC going to start calling it “Yellow Fever?” Will this one end like Madame Butterfly? It would truly be fun if Fleiss would go there. Could you see a home visit where say Tina’s parents refuse to meet the white devil or Tessa’s dad starts quizzing Andy about what he really did on his humanitarian mission in Cambodia. Better yet, maybe one of them could have a brother who insists on saying something like “Dude, how come they never have Asian guys kissing white women on tv? Isn’t this the ultimate extension of colonialism?”

After trashing Dr. Andy last week, I do have to give him major props for dumping the ladies who appeared to be troublemakers this time around. I’m not sure why so many of the ladies were out to get Amber. There’s been nothing about the edit thus far to suggest that she was any of the things that Kate Brockhouse and Strapless Stephanie were claiming. I have no idea where the “Tina said Amber almost had sex with Andy on their date” came from with Kate. It almost looked like she gave up on the possibility of winning on the show, so just decided to create a little rose-tinged mayhem.

I honestly don’t know what to say about Stephanie T. other than she seemed to have confused her strategy for how to sell lap dances with how to get a rose. If she is an organ transplant coordinator, it must be the only such clinic in the world with a brass firepole, thousand watt per channel sound system, and champagne room in the back. After rubbing up against the muscular bachelor more than a dog in heat, Stephanie finally talks to him and basically spends her on screen talk time trashing Amber et. al. then blames her exit on jealousy, which according to Steph T. is a big lake near the Oregon-California border.

There were points where I was sure that both Kate and Stephanie had determined that their best option on this show is to get major screen time for the Ladies Tell All portion. I don’t think Stephanie is headed for Erica Rose minutes this year, but she’s likely getting major alone time in the chair next to Chris Harrison that night.

Nicole appeared to be less of that ilk, it’s more that I don’t remember her saying anything or getting significant alone time with the officer and a doctor. She was one of several of the nine ladies who caught some pretty harsh camera angles in this episode.

I have to say that the editing is really interesting this year. They’re showing Andy having some serious physical chemistry with Bevin Powers, enough so that she’s the other favorite, along with Tessa Horst, to get the ring. At the same time, the University of Washington grad is getting a piercingly whiny edit. She moans that she can’t look good for her group date with Andy because of her ankle. Fascinatingly enough, it’s Tessa who ventures into the bathroom to console Bevin. The rest of the competition jumps to and gets her ready for the ball. Bevin moans some more, acts miserable to get Andy’s attention, steals time from the others, then complains some more about her plight. They went gambling not skiing. Did they show her thanking anyone? Instead, she uses the bulk of her alone time to play tonsil hockey, a sport you can apparently play with a bad ankle, with the object of everyone’s desire.

Of all the ladies, Bevin seems to be the one who suffers from the whims of the camera the most. Most people do have good and bad camera angles and Bevin goes from looking sporty to forty at any given moment. At the same time, they seem to keep making a point of showing that tattoo on her upper right shoulder. There’ve been some references to Bevin having been “on her own” and “experienced”, it may be foreshadowing a big reveal. Some of the more studious types claim to have uncovered a Texas marriage and divorce for the psych lab assistant. If true, it could make for better television than Jehan’s green card husband. What a wuss that Travis was on that one!
In the meantime, I wonder about Bevin’s psychology background (she works at Stanford and is a grad student at San Jose State in the field), sometimes it looks like she profiled Andy somehow and figured out how to press his “protective” button. Isn’t that scene where Richard Gere carries Deborah Winger out of the factory at the end not the middle of the movie? It also certainly wasn’t in some Lake Tahoe hotel corridor.

Amber- So why did Kate and Stephanie T. go to 4 alarm Mean Girl mode with the “too young” meme and Amber. The only thing I saw was that Amber won the triathlon and the ladies spotted Andy and Amber sitting together on the swings afterwards. And that date! Did they talk about anything other than the show or their maybe sort of generalized feelings? Why not just color code the ladies the way Homeland Security does? Today is Orange, that means I’m ready for a relationship. Today is Green, I’m still open to it. Today is Erica Rose, I’m just trying to get face time on national television.

As a guy watching Dr. Andy take his top off, I’m sort of understanding how regular women feel about Pamela Anderson. I do have to say that Amber looked good in her hot tub wear, but it's probably a bit outside the normal Bachelor demographic for me to expound on this.

Stephanie Willhite- She did the near naked back rub and stayed on the mechanical bull….This Bachelor’s not dumb, he’s thinking fantasy suite time. Right now, she’s getting the nice girl edit, but I’d expect to see some chemistry between the two real soon or it’s back to Kansas without a rose.

Danielle- She actually made it through a whole show without mentioning the dead boyfriend. In the meantime, she seems to spend the entire show changing her hairstyle three times a day.

Other stuff- A right wing blogger did send me a confidential e-mail claiming to have proof that both Andy’s car and yacht were actually requisitioned by Nancy Pelosi. And why does the car change values from half a million to a million mid-show? At one point, Andy points out that he just has a lieutenant’s salary and normally drives a jeep. I’m not buying it, I’m thinking coalition provisional authority or his sister is dating Paul Wolfowitz. Also what’s up with the million dollar jewelry promo the last two shows? Did Zales sign up as a sponsor? I don’t see anything all that exciting about wearing them for a couple hours and having to give them back. I still say, the lady should be given a choice, keep the diamonds or dump Andy. Put the rose on the other foot for a change.

In the meantime, on with the journey!

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Tears for the River God (fiction redrafted)


This story has been published by Grey Sparrow Journal in their June 2009 issue


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Monday, April 23, 2007

Warriors Curse Lifted? (sports)

I guess you can go home again. The last time the Golden State Warrior’s played in an NBA playoff game, George Bush Senior was still president of the United States. The last time, they won a playoff game was before the first Gulf War. Most people did not have e-mail and yahoo was something one did through something called “Mosaic.” The following things did not exist-search engines-Ipods-HDTV-American Idol-commerical hybrid automobiles-steroids in baseball- Paris Hilton as a celebrity-high school and foreign players going in the lottery. Now for the truly mindblowing thing, Don Nelson was coaching the Warriors both back then and last night when the Warriors upset Nelson’s other former team, the Dallas Mavericks (in fact Mavericks coach was the Warriors point guard the last time Warriors made the playoffs).

I was nine years old when my older cousin Jeff took me to Golden Gate park to throw footballs. Two very tall dogs and an even taller man walked by and stopped for just a second to watch us. My cousin Jeff recognized him and said, “Hey, Wilt Chamberlain! I’m a big fan of yours.”

I shook hands with the tallest man I’d ever meet. His dogs’ heads came up to my shoulders. I was more than a little scared. Wilt must have been between sexual conquests that afternoon and we certainly didn’t discuss that part of his life. I did, however, become a San Francisco Warriors fan then. At the time, a lot of people still talked about some of the players having been better when the team was in Philadelphia.
Still, I never saw a Warriors game live until that second-round playoff game when Bill Bridges made like an early version of Dennis Rodman and helped the team turn around a 16 point deficit in a critical series with the Bulls. That was the same year that Rick Barry led the team to its only NBA championship.

Except for the Run TMC era in the first Don Nelson tenure here, I got into the habit of half-heartedly rooting for the Warriors to get better during the regular season then come the playoffs picking a team to root for. This is embarrassing to admit, but I usually rooted for the Lakers in the playoffs. Over the thirty years since Mike Riordan tried to mug Rick Barry in the finals and Derek Dickey got a tip slam on a free throw, the quinetessential Warrior was the rainbow shooting Purvis Short. Short’s claim to fame was simple enough. For the first ten years of his career, people used to debate whether or not Purvis Short was the best player in NBA history never to make it to the playoffs (btw, Short did see the playoffs the last 3 years of his career) Until about 10 days ago, I was beginning to worry that Jason Richardson was headed towards Purvis Short territory. Just to be clear, this is not Ernie Banks land. It’s more like being the best player whose team never had a .500 season.

After the trifecta of Rony Seikaly, Webber v. Nelson, and Sprewell v. PJ’s Throat the Warriors seemed quite literally cursed. Less than a season after the arrival of Baron Davis created some hope, there was talk that he was either too injured or lacked the attitude to take the team to the playoffs. When the team re-hired Nelson, it felt like the current ownership simply decided that it had to take the curse head on. Things went okay then Richardson went out and Davis went out. When Davis went out, it prompted more discussion of the fact that Baron Davis just never stayed healthy enough.

Diehard fans pointed to the fact that this particular version of the team had just never been healthy enough for any extended period of time. Skeptics though pointed out that the team’s record was no better under Nelson than it had been under either Mike Montgomery or Eric Musselman, the man who had been surprisingly effective with what all knowledgeable observers considered an under-talented team. Equally frustrating, Musselman, now the coach of the Kings the team that picked up Rick Adelman, another failed Warriors coach who turned the Kings into contenders, was doing about as well in Sacramento as Nelson’s Warriors. Over the course of three weeks all of that changed.

First, it’s difficult to underestimate the impact of the Jackson-Harrington trade. It’s not an accident that the Pacers at the time of the trade had a long streak of playoff appearances and were like the Warriors on the bubble of playoff contention just before the trade. Let me do the math for you, Stephan Jackson turned out to be a better player in every way than Mike Dunleavy. In particular, he’s got better court sense, passes better, and brings more intangibles to the floor. Given that Jackson was a prominent participant in the Auburn Hills fiasco and is currently in trouble for firing a gun outside a strip club, this is rather amazing. At the same time, Stephan Jackson was also a key player for the Spurs championship team not that long ago. Harrington turned out to be a big man who could score a little inside, something the Warriors haven’t had in a long time. Strangely, Harrington wound up contributing as a center when most wondered if he was too small to play the 4. All of this was Don Nelson’s doing. In the meantime, the Kings wound up firing Musselman.

With all the injuries, the team’s two youngest players Ellis and Biedrins had enjoyed breakout seasons. With the return of Richardson and Davis, Nelson did something quite remarkable. He reduced Ellis and Biedrinis role on the team, few coaches would ever mess with emerging stars. Up to this point, the benefit of Jackson and Harrington had been hidden by the fact that they’d been pushed into being the team’s go-to scorers. Once pushed back to more complementary roles, it became much more obvious how much Nelson had improved the team.

With the Mavericks, the team that Nelson helped rebuild, up by 5 in the third quarter last night, I was waiting for the inevitable. Instead, Baron Davis took over the game in virtually every way. First he got himself to the free throw line twice and made a layup to keep the score close, then he began hitting threes. The big play though in my mind came from Stephan Jackson. With the Warriors’ offense doing one of its occasional we only like to jack up threes on critical baskets turns, Stephan Jackson took a pass from outside the arc and then alertly found a cutting Jason Richardson for a huge momentum-breaking layup. Another key player down the stretch was Matt Barnes, a classic Nelson discovery, the very athletic tweener who hustles like crazy rescued from some NBA backchannel.

Maybe the Warriors will lose the next four games now and maybe this wasn’t the Boston Red Sox winning in seven against the Yankees, but the curse is over. I don’t have to choose a team to root for now that the playoffs have gotten underway. Thanks, Don Nelson. Somehow, I think even Billy Owens was sort of applauding this one.


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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sanjaya Hair Today gone Tomorrow (American Idol 6 Review)

Ryan Seacrest
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images for FOX

The best thing about Sanjaya Malakar finally getting voted off is that my wife is going to let me take my hair out of that ponyhawk. Had the guy lasted another week, I was afraid she was going to make me put on a red Papa Smurf kerchief. Ah the price of getting her to agree to dress up like Haley Scarnato! In the meantime, why do I have this feeling that Sanjaya’s not going to be opening for Bonnie Raitt any time soon?

This was a weird week on the show for a variety of reasons, most of them outside the control of Idol itself. I have to say that the amount of time and energy spent in exonerating Simon Cowell at the beginning of the Wednesday show suggested that “eye-roll” gate had set off an alarm of some kind. The show’s balance between snark, family-entertainment, and double entendre has always been a delicate one. I suspect that Nigel et. al. saw this as a possible “Jump the Snark” moment for Idol.

I really rather enjoyed the use of instant replay on the Simon insults. I do think the replay did clearly show that Simon was in bounds, but there are some things I wonder about. One is the matter of the picture within picture. Why stick it in the bottom left-hand corner and cover up Paula, the person Simon was talking to, rather than put it in the upper corners? Second, they kept going at the idea that Simon wasn’t rolling his eyes about the “tragedy at Virginia Tech.” They pointedly ignored the equally real and in some ways trickier possibility that Simon was rolling his eyes at Chris Richardson’s using Virginia solidarity as tasteless way to get votes on the show. The replay strongly suggested that Simon was still questioning why anyone would claim to singing nasally on purpose. btw I rather like instant replay for Simon Cowell insults. I could see Paula Abdul throwing a flag out onto the stage, the producers stop the action, Ryan stares into a shrouded replay camera, maybe Randy talks about the critical impact Simon's insult will or won't have on the result....

This one though didn’t actually clear up the question of whether Chris did what he did to make the top 6.

I’m happy to give Chris Richardson the benefit of the doubt, though I have to point out that the circumstantial evidence is pretty interesting. He could have done his dedication before he sang, could have changed to a more appropriate song, and he didn’t even bring it up when he first got his chance to do his post-sentencing statement with Ryan. It was only after he tried to answer Simon's harsh criticism. Chris does, however, appear to have a reputation as a very nice guy which suggests to me that he wouldn’t have decided to use it as his “out pitch” this week. He did, however, apparently go from being bottom three to being top three in a week where most people thought he didn’t sing well. If I were voting, I would have sent him back to Mayberry just for the way he sang. I’d also say that simple nervousness could easily explain the timing of the dedication as well.

There are a lot of people speculating about what Sanjaya should do next. While I’m something of a fan, my suggestions would be that he should take more singing lessons. I don’t mean this in a mean way. I think there were obvious limits as to how well William Hung could sing. That’s not the case with Sanjaya Malakar. The judges clearly didn’t send him to Hollywood as a joke. He often sounded pretty good though maybe never for an entire song. I could definitely see Sanjaya and Antonella Barba as some kind of post-modern version of Donnie and Marie.

As for the post-modem of why he got voted off now, I've seen several plausible lines of speculation. Some say the joke wore out. Some mention that Virginia Tech left the voters much more serious. Others point out that Sanjaya simply didn't sing as well, even by his standard, and for whatever reason he lost his knack for surprising his audience this week. I lean towards the last one. Starting with "I like giving people Something to Talk About", Sanjaya dropped one too many hints that he was a bit too self-conscious of well being Sanjaya.

My one wrinkle is that I think his actually singing well last week hurt him. It set up an expectation that he might suddenly break out to conventional respectability on the show. His meandering sometimes flat take on Bonnie Raitt underlined his lack of rhythm and dynamic control and confirmed that Besame Mucho was maybe less a jump in his performing ability than a song suited to his voice and style.

This is my bottom line though. Three years ago, the weekly criticism nearly destroyed John Stevens's spirit on stage. Scot Savol seemed to turn surly the next. Last year, Kevin Covais got locked into playing a cartoon character. Sanjaya withstood the full measure of 50 lashes of Simon Cowell's tongue and still appeared to have fun in his time on the show. In that sense, Sanjaya Malaker beat the system and I say "Good for him!"

Lakisha Jones- I confess to a bit of a prejudice about Jesus Take the Wheel. If a rapper recorded a song with the same "driving lesson", most of America would be taking him/her literally and screaming that he's endangering all these teenaged kids who now are going to be testing their faith by closing their eyes, letting go of the steering wheel, and trusting in some higher power to get them where they're going. Carrie Underwood sings it and everyone accepts it as some tribute to motherhood and God. My guess is that Carrie could sing about doing Meth, mention Jesus in the song, and America would still buy it as wholesome.

Musically, I thought it was a terrible idea to Lakishafy this particular song. It didn't fit with the lyric and Carrie Underwood remains one of AI's sacred cowgirls.

Melinda Doolittle- Doesn't get enough credit for how smart she's been. Of all the contestants with deep spiritual beliefs, Melinda Doolittle has gotten them across better than anyone, largely by acting on them and not saying much about them. When she did the shout out on Wednesday, saying that she needs her Christian-gospel fix now and then it was perfect timing. I don't think she did it deliberately, but it was the perfect way to obliquely refer to the events of the week and yet not come off as if she might be exploiting them.

As usual, she was very good vocally with "Trouble is a Woman." She kept it sassy, upbeat, and fun. I don't however think she'll be making a lot of country albums.

Phil Stacy- Wow, shows how much I know. This guy's lasted at least two weeks longer than I would have thought possible and this week he did it for the right reason. He did well with Keith Urban's "Where the Blacktop Ends". Instead of waiting for the point where he could start soaring around with his bat sonar voice, it felt like he just sort of sang this one and it worked. I do think he'll have to keep getting better to have much of a chance to go way deep into this. As a possible vampire, maybe Phil was excited to hear about the Pope repealing limbo this week.

Blake Lewis- First, "When the Stars Go Blue" was sort of cheating. It's really a Ryan Adams song that Tim McGraw covered and Blake didn't make much effort to even take it country. And the clothes. I just hope the Blake Lewis look doesn't catch on any time soon, though I say that as somesone who's way more likely to be the makeover subject on "Queer Eye" than any kind of consultant. Also the lights and sound mix drowned him out. It must have sounded better in rehearsals for the show to give him the pimp spot. I wasn't shocked at all to see him hit the bottom three.

Jordin Sparks- To me, the measure of country music will always still be whether of not it makes me want to cry. A few years ago, another young contestant, Diana Degarmo, took on Martina Mcbride's song and got the notes right, but the song wrong. Jordin made sense of this song emotionally, going soft at the right times and soaring at just the right moments. It wasn't just putting emotion into the song, it was doing it with some measure of finesse. The song's message of hurt and recovery resonated perfectly with the week's events.

Simon et. al. also seem to be breaking out the heavy artillery for her.

Other- I thought Martina Mcbride sounded pretty good and I enjoyed the bit with her daughter. One sign that I'm getting old was when they announced Fergie, I fully expected Prince Andrew's ex-wife to get up and start singing.

Overally, I'm fine with Idol Cares next week, but the way they're going about it reminds me of those ten thousand dollar a ticket society extravaganzas where they invite all the beautiful people who would never come to my party, bring in several limo loads of first line entertainers, and promote their own social status while acting like they have a heart. Could it be that one reason there are so many children suffering in this world is that too many of us would rather watch shows like Idol than think about stuff like that? That said, I give the show credit for bringing it up at all and I just hope it really does make a few lives better.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

How American Was Cho Seung-Hui? (social comment)

Since it came out that the shooter in Blacksburg, Cho Seung-Hui, happened to be a Korean immigrant, I’ve seen a variety of fascinating bits both conscious and unconscious that emphasize the troubled-young man’s Korean-identity as opposed to his American one. As an Asian-American (3 of my grandparents came from China, one was born here but her parents were Chinese as well), I may be especially sensitive to the ethnic legerdemain of the last few days. Part of that is that it used to be considered polite to ask me two minutes after meeting me, “Hi, when did your parents come over from China and were you born here or over there?” or to comment that “My English was really good.” When I told even adults that my parents were born in California, they sometimes would insist that I must be lying.

As a result, I notice things. Actually, one of the first things I saw almost immediately after it was revealed that the shooter might be Asian was a blog reaction from an obscure right wing blog immediately complaining that the FBI was trying to whitewash the incident because it was already eliminating the possibility of terrorism. I think the blogger may have thought that by “Asian” the man might be Pakistani or Indonesian, but there are large numbers of Chinese Moslems in western China. Talk about ethnic profiling!

The next bit was people commenting with surprising certainty that Cho was here on a student visa. Actually, he'd come to the United States at age eight and had a green card or permanent residency status.

Yet another example, I saw an amateur poet who tried to write about the incident refer to the "Oriental" man who fired the shots. I suppose this was technically accurate, but given the level of detail it stuck out in my reading since he could just have easily mentioned for instance that Cho was an English major, that he grew up in Maryland, that his parents were devout Christians, or that he has a sister who works in Iraqi reconstruction.

When NBC posted the video that Cho had made of himself and apparently dropped off somehow between killings, the version I saw came with remarks from a psychologist who used the occasion in part to explain that "This was not typical Korean behavior." The expert then went on to ask if Cho has perhaps had difficulty going back and forth between Korean and American culture and if that tension perhaps contributed to his going off.

When I was a kid, a huge part of the American dream or at least my American dream was simply to be considered American. I was and am actually fine being thought of as Asian or Chinese-American, but the second half too often seemed to be the sticking point for most of the people I met who were white and American. Even as a kid, I recognized the subtext of these encounters clearly enough, "You had to be white to really be American."

One of my friends who happens to be white told me when the news of the massacre had just broken that she was hoping that the shooter wasn't anything other than white, because she felt that certain kinds of folk would make far too much of the fact. I did read one unconfirmed report that many Korean students have left Blacksburg out of fear of possible reprisals.

At this point, I've seen the excerpts from the videos Cho sent to NBC and read something on AOL that was supposed to be one of the "scripts" he'd written from the now infamous creative writing classes he'd taken at Virginia Tech. The one I saw was a MacBeth/Hamlet parody with references to the NFL and a molestation theme. It was wildly violent, angry, etc., but there was absolutely nothing in it to suggest that any of the characters were Korean and nothing especially Korean about the perspective.

In the pictures that are now all over the Internet, Cho wears a baseball cap backwards on his head to emphasize his toughness. Is pretending to be from Compton, a Korean thing? He makes multiple comparisons between what he's about to do and Jesus's crucifixion. For every Sun Myung Moon, there are probably a hundred Evangelicals wandering that part of Virginia. He rants about rich people and their Mercedes's. He makes no mention of whitey (though it might have been edited out) or his own ethnicity in any of the materials I saw.

So I'm asking, why is everyone in such a rush to characterize this guy as something other than an American? What's more American these days then videotaping yourself and sending it off to the network mid-murder? How about stalking by cellphone? Is information-age an ethnicity? Korea may have its own violent history, but buying a Glock and a .22 at a gun shop then shooting up a classroom without any serious political agenda is sadly about as American as it gets. Yes, they do have mass murders in other cultures, there were even bigger ones in Iraq just yesterday. Still, describe this crime to anyone in the world without any details about where it happened, then ask them to guess which country it happened in?

Even Americans would likely tell you it had to be American.

I have no idea what made Cho so angry, crazy, or both. At some level, I'll never know. It could well have been medication or mental illness. He might have been victimized in some way or even molested, something that did appear to be a theme in his scripts. Again, the fact that he was writing scripts is kind of telling in its own way about the ethnic factor or lack of one here. The guy certainly wasn't quoting Chang Rae Lee. His choice of language was much more South Park meets Eminem meets Gangsta Rap.

Still, I have this little boy in me that wants to believe that the sad life of Cho Seung-Hui and his anger at the presumptions of the "wealthy" had something to do with how American he really was inside. In fact, the scariest thing about it might be the total absence of Korean connections to all he had to say. Could it be that the deepest and saddest irony of this guy's twisted life was that America just refused to see that.

Maybe it's just human on our part to try to distance "America" from what Cho did by making him and what he did as Korean as possible. I suppose there once was a part of me that was relieved to think that Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, George W. Bush et al. must have done what they did because they were white. Now, I simply understand that they were either sick or evil and it had little or nothing to do with their ethnicity. Tomorrow, I won't sit around and insist that Alberto Gonzales must have dissembled because he's Mexican. I understand that the A.G. is just as American as I am, it's just that he has no real sense of decency.

I think again about my childhood dream of being fully American. At least a part of that came because I also grew up with rhetoric that America was a special country because being American had nothing to do with race or even where you were born. Instead, it was something you became or as Superman insisted being American was something you did, a set of principles and ways of doing things that had something to do with truth and justice.

Sadly though, there's also the other American way. That one has to do with some of the deep anger, a kind of grotesque Gatsby dragged thorugh South Park, about exclusion and inclusion that Cho expressed so hatefully. Some of it has to do with solving problems by first resorting to extreme violence or threats of it. There's something strangely American about all that as well. We are, after all, pretty much the only people in the world where anyone would insist that these murders just prove that everyone ought ot have a gun to defend themselves from people like that and expect to be taken seriously.

To me that's the irony of this sad moment in our cultural history. I don't think we can be the America of truth, justice, etc. that Superman once defended until more of us get how deeply and tragically American both Cho and what he did really were.

Also see Jeff Yang's blogpost on this at Salon


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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Was Idol Itself Off Key on Tuesday? (AI 6 commentary)

"Mahalia Jackson both expressed her spiritual beliefs in her music, but also used her music to support the Civil Rights movement as an extension of those beliefs. That made her an actual American Idol."

The Idol topic of the moment appears to be Simon Cowell’s eye roll after Chris Richardson said that he wanted to dedicate his performance last night to his many good friends at Virginia Tech. Richardson had just gotten beaten up by the judges for his performance of a song about wanting to be back with Opie, Andy, Barney, and Aunt Bea. It hardly seemed to be the sort of song one would dedicate to friends under such somber circumstances. Richardson also could possibly have said his bit before singing instead of after. Of course, it’s not clear if it was either possible to change his song to some more broken-hearted country dirge say Patsy Cline or if he could have said anything before his performance.

In any case, Chris’s “dedication” had the unfortunate feel of being a vote-getting ploy because of the way he wound up doing it. Simon maybe shouldn’t have rolled his eyes (if that’s in fact what the eye roll was about), but I did too. My guess is that Chris didn’t intend it that way, it just sort of came off like that.

The whole incident was one of those reminders about how tricky it can be when reality intrudes on reality tv. One of my first non-serious thoughts after hearing about the shootings was “Oh my God, what if the guy did it to protest Sanjaya Malakar’s staying on the show.”

How’s that for taking some of the heat off of Simon and Chris here? I apologize to anyone I offended with that one btw, but I’m sharing it to make a point. Do we have too many ways to “escape” in our culture or not enough of them, and what is the proper role of reality tv in our lives at times like this?

As I went for my afternoon walk today, it did occur to me that there might have been better ways for the show to deal with the news. I did think Ryan’s pre-broadcast message was fine, but maybe a quick group sing of something like “Amazing Grace”, recorded by any number of country artists or even a moment of silence with pictures of the Blue Ridge mountains playing on the screen might have worked better. In exchange, they could easily have cut down on some of the banter or maybe edited some of the coaching bits. Idol consistently equates the show itself with "America" and what America wants and feels. So?

Instead, there was this odd tension between “business as usual” on the show and the obvious fact that this show claims to be “ordinary people” singing their way to celebrity and thus a bit more connected to the actual world than say a laugh-tracked episode of Two and a Half Men. In particular, I think the judges didn’t get the fact that the live audience kept giving the singers standing ovations not because they loved the music or the performances, but because they were trying to show a kind of solidarity about “keeping America entertained” on a night where a little diversion wouldn’t hurt.

The show’s producers are usually almost telepathic about complex cultural messages, but the irony is that they totally underestimated the social power of music this time. They had a chance to use the show to heal, yet I’m mostly left with the Simon-Chris eye roll controversy. It's sad particularly given how religious some of the contestants appear to be this year. I'm not blaming them btw, it was really more the way the show missed the opportunity.

It’s an eerie coincidence that “Idol Cares” ,with its corporate tie-ins, just happens to be next week’s theme. My question right now is how well does Idol help us feel? Music isn’t just about making money or even making dreams come true. It’s also about healing and addressing the spirit. One reason I write about the show is that I love music for the power it has in our lives. I'll confess that I sometimes use my reviews to discuss what's possible in music vs. what's on the show. It’s sad to me that the producers of Idol this Tuesday night got a bit "pitchy" themselves and missed how much music can matter and how it really can make a difference.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Accelerate Your Life in the Navy (Bachelor 10 review)

"The Sorority Recruiter Sadly Did Not Accomplish Her Mission"

I feel bad for Erin. Not only did the financial analyst get the extended “blonde joke” edit, the show just happened to air her comments on her idea of a good time on the worst imaginable date. Ecstatic to get a NASCAR-style group date after being subjected to a Triathlon then a reality show boot camp with a disabled list, Erin tells Doctor Andy, “This is more my idea of a good time. But you know what would be even better? I’d love to take you shooting with me. It relaxes me to fire away.”

Andy does his usually non-commital, “You shoot guns? That sounds hot.”

Of course, ABC airs this hot-guns exchange unedited on the very day that Cho-Seung Hui killed thirty three people at Duke’s ACC rival Virginia Tech. It was just one of those collisions between the real world and reality tv that made my head spin with the dangers of our virtualized culture. I still have this image of all these terrified students texting one another on their cellphones and clicking on between messages. I confess, I watched the rest of the show anyway all the way through that weird faux porn scene at the end with Erin again. One of the Bachelorettes tries to use a corkscrew to open a champagne bottle then appears in one of the bedrooms with bottle in hand and Erin delivers a line straight out of Boogie Nights about where the cork might be popping.

Still, the most awkward moment for Erin or anyone else had to be Officer Andy’s odd ploy of getting the ladies alone and then telling them that he really wants them “to come out and be themselves.” Talk about your paradoxical incantations! It’s a variation on “I command you to be spontaneous.”

I’d feel more sorry for her, but the whole bit that started with “I just love fast cars” that ended with, “Gee, I have no idea how to shift gears,” was one too many trips to the clairol well of humor. The fact that Andy chose her the alone time over say Amanda didn’t reflect all that well on Dr. Pecs’s taste.

There’s being well-mannered, which is something he shares with the last two Bachelors, and there’s having actual charm. They’re not the same thing. If you want to bring someone out, you don’t command them to do it on cue. Real romantics have a knack for it. They make little stray comments that seem light and trivial, but then suddenly cut to the heart of the matter. They engage all the senses not just the words someone is saying and they pay exquisite attention to their “alone time” partner. In other words, they give their partners something to come out to. This guy so far is more of a dud stud. He shows off his pecs, his aircraft carrier, lets them massage him and the lady is supposed to either start kissing him or volunteering their “real” selves with him.

That’s the whole problem with this “Gentleman” bit. Don’t the producers ever watch movies? The really polite guy usually winds up being the lady’s second choice. The sparks are supposed to fly in the repartee where each manages to say just the right thing, ask the question that penetrates to the heart, etc. You want romance on this show? Find a guy who actually has the game for it.

Danielle, the Connecticut graphic-designer, sort of tries to go the intimacy route, but she breaks a couple other dating rules in the process. Most people don’t consider talking about old boyfriends as the best tactic on a date. In fact, some believe it’s in incredibly bad taste.

I’m not sure where that lands repeatedly talking about old dead boyfriends, but trying to establish a verbal rapport by way of Stephen King story is definitely a bit out there. Andy though doesn’t seem to mind, he gave the woman another rose. Perhaps it had more to do with decolletage on the driving date than the conversation. I look forward to Danielle maybe getting a home visit and doing a reprise of Meredith and Bob Guiney’s visit to Nana’s grave with the old dead boyfriend.

“Andy, he really seemed to like you. He wants us to be together. We’re destined to be together.” Danielle’s eyes go wide and she brings out a spool of duct tape and a ball gag.

“Uh, you say that he died in bed next to you one morning?” Andy glances back towards the car.

“Yes, of course, I thought I told you that.” Danielle makes involuntary stabbing motions with her left hand.

Jumping ahead a bit to Mission Accomplished 2, Andy seemed as actually sexual with the women as Tom Cruise did in that Stanley Kubrick movie with Nicole Kidman. I have to say that I was disappointed that the producers didn’t have Andy land in the helicopter on the flight deck in an orange flight suit, but maybe they’ll let him fire some U.S. attorneys in some later episode. Maybe I shouldn’t go there, but I really don’t like the subtle Navy recruitment message this season. It’s obviously no accident that Phil Stacy and Andy Baldwin got time off from the Navy to be on a reality show, but when they’re sending soldiers back to Iraq who still have post-traumatic stress and other injuries I find it disturbing that anyone’s calling Andy’s double date or boot camp any kind of “Reality.”

No, I’m not saying that they should have made Cindy Sheehan one of the bachelorettes and have them go on a group date to Guantanamo. I’m also not suggesting that the bachelorettes begin asking Andy’s opinions on the Watada case or the bombing of the Iraqi parliament. This is after all entertainment. It’s not the real news. It’s not even Fox news. I just ask that they be a little more realistic about what it means to be a “military wife’ at a time like this in a war like this. I think it’s slimy to try to use an aircraft carrier as a romantic backdrop. In the long term it didn’t work for the President, I hope to hell it doesn’t work for the Bachelor. “Hey baby, they transferred me from Pearl Harbor to Walter Reed this week. It makes me so proud to serve my country like this and support our troops in this way just like the White House.”

There’s a part of me that suspects that Andy Baldwin himself knows better. You notice how they mention his trip to Cambodia, but none of the ladies ever actually ask him about it? Okay, I should stop. I’m going to scare away all my readers. Before I do though, it might be really interesting to watch a movie like “Murder Ball” between Bachelor installments this season. There’s a scene at the very end, where they go to recruit wheelchair rugby players at military base. It’s still one of the most poignant images of all that’s right with America and all that’s wrong with the war that I’ve seen so far.

Anyway, a few people have noted that Tessa seems to be playing a sort of “Meredith” role this season. She actually shows some respect and genuine respect for Peyton prior to their dual for Andy. She’s been in tune with Andy’s foot fetish and she told a lame muffin joke, but that’s about as strange as she’s gotten. I do have to say that the alone time we saw between the two was hardly my idea of quality conversation. The first half with its talk of San Francisco tourist destinations sounded like a script for an updated Rice-a-Roni commercial. The second half consisted of Tessa saying “When I’m with you, I really want to be with you. When I’m away from you, I sometimes see this whole process as kind of crazy.”

Peyton took a less complex approach. “I really like you and I want to be with you.”
Is either actual romantic banter or deep conversation? Is there some personal quality of Andy’s that either of these women cares about? Do they laugh together? Do they respect or admire something about one another other than “He’s a navy doctor. I can see now that it’s a real job and he has such great muscles.”

I was a little surprised that he dumped Peyton to the shame of tri-Deltas everywhere. The camera kept showing Andy touching her first and letting go her of her last when he was in the presence of both ladies, though I think he does greet Tessa first on the ship.

Believe it or not, I thought Boot Camp made for pretty good tv. The bit with Bevin Powers’s possible ankle fracture did have this weird echo of “Improvised Vulcanized Device”, but I was genuinely sorry it didn’t play out. I wanted to see if Amber, the teacher who won the Triathlon or Bevin “Yes, Lou Gossett impressionist sir” wound up getting the rose.

Bevin does seem to be remarkably attuned to Doctor Andy’s foot fetish. I’m not sure how much it’s a function of the edit, but the physical chemistry between the two is very strong.

Other thoughts:

Tina: Doctor Tina got the “psycho” line, “They’re touching the man I’m going to marry.” You know if your future husband is going to get in a mud bath with five girls in bikinis and wrestle with all of them except you. I don’t think he’s exactly your future husband yet. She was also, as best I could tell, intriguingly silent about any prior relationships. I mean how many other guys would stick around after she sang the National Anthem? She got a rose anyway.

Nicole: When they get down to about 9 tends to be the sweet spot of the season. Lots of different possibilities, but you’re starting to get a clue about who the Bachelorettes are. That said, I know almost nothing about this lady. Was she the one who put vodka in that birthday cake?

Stephanie from Kansas: Okay, my pet theory is that if you give the Bachelor a massage in a bikini, you invariably get to the fantasy suite dates. She’s also providing a clear contrast to Stephanie from Slut Carolina and her “Can’t keep our hands off one another” approach to romance.

Stephanie from South Carolina: I think she somehow escaped from a Girls Gone Wild Video. The Gufus and Gallant bit with Andy in between the two Stephanies was fine tv. Stephanie rubbing up against Andy in the mud bath was even better with its primal-sexy goofiness. “Yes Admiral, this is my fiancée. We realized that we had a future together when I was mud wrestling with her along with four other ladies in bikinis. Thank you for letting me bring her along to Tailhook.”

Amber: Didn’t get many lines at all this time through. I hear that the ladies used Stephanie from South Carolina’s toothbrush on that bathroom floor then put it back in her toiletry case.

Kate: Took a shot at I’m really the domestic wholesome type. Andy kept her, but this guy is clearly into “flash” at some level. He didn’t exactly say, “Wow, that’s who I really am too.” She may need to put the ultra-short skirt back on that she wore on opening night.

Next week is Lake Tahoe. I've heard they're in negotiations with a very special guest to help advise Doctor Andy on his choices, Don Imus.

Chris- Don you do realize that these ladies are all someone's daughters, sisters, grandchildren and you're saying this on national television.

Imus- Hey, I was just being an entertainer. Does everyone have to be so politically correct? Besides, I've been nice to women a couple times. They should be coming forward to defend me right now.

Andy- You can't say those sorts of things. These ladies look so beautiful and they're all so accomplished.

Imus- Right, tell me about it rose boy.

Danielle comes into the room.

Danielle- You know Mr. Imus, I don't appreciate what you said about us. I have a boyfriend who died.

Scene goes to black and the next segment have the ladies going a boat ride and deciding to throw the guitar player who follows them around and strums during the romantic scenes overboard.

Eventually, we see a preview of a scene where an angry Andy breaks into the ladies house and screaming, “You wondering why I act and look so much like a gay porn star. Well, you can’t handle the truth!”

I am still hoping that cool looking drill seargent gets to be the next Bachelor. All these ladies with shaved heads getting roses, guest appearance by Demi Moore dressed as G.I. Jane.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

The Virginia Tech Shootings

First, my deepest sympathies go out the students and staff at Virginia Tech University. At this point, about the only thing that’s appeared in the news was that a gunman (for whatever reason, the reports only mention one) managed to shoot and kill thirty one people in a single morning rampage. They haven’t released his/her name nor has anything been said about a possible motive other than the FBI’s statement that there is nothing to suggest that this was a terrorist act of any kind. Given that it appears to have been a single shooter and reports that the police were collecting a large number of expended shells from the scene of the crime, I have to assume that an automatic weapon of some sort was involved.

Inevitably, the press asked the White House how the incident affects the Administration’s stance on gun control. Acting White House Press Secretary, Dana Perino, responded that “The president believes that there is a right to bear arms, but that all laws must be followed.”

I take the latter to mean that it’s all right to have guns, but not to shoot anyone else with them. At a logical level, it’s sensible enough though it’s a bit like saying “Possession of heroin should be legal as long as you don’t use it, sell it, or give it to anyone who might.”

I think it was Poe who insisted that you should never put a gun on the mantelpiece in a story unless it’s going to go off at some point and play some role in the plot.

I would assume that the White House’s initial take on the shootings was not especially well prepared. I imagine they’ve been busy lately with the Attorney General’s testimony before congress tomorrow, the weekend bombings and Al Sadr’s symbolic withdrawal of his cabinet ministers from the government in Iraq, and doing the compassionate conservative thing by making sympathetic phone calls to former vice-presidential chief of staff Lewis Libby. Despite
Dick Cheney’s claim that he hasn’t spoken to his good friend
and former far fight hand man
, Lewis Libby, since the indictment or the verdict, I’m assuming they care about him at least as much as they care about supporting our troops even when they’re in VA hospitals.

I’m just not sure why an Adminstration that has been so unconcerned about the first and fourth amendments or the rule of law appears to consider the second amendment so sacrosanct. The last time I checked the preamble of the Constitution it said “We the people” not “We the people and their automatic weapons.” On the other hand, why would I expect a White House that’s allowed so many to die in a war based on a lie not to respond by saying, “Terrible tragedy, but we’re not going to restrict anyone’s right to bear arms. That would really be wrong.”

When I used to visit high poverty schools, I was always amazed by the security precautions. During the school day, despite the fire marshals, high schools often only allowed people to come in and out of a single door of the building. At the door, all visitors walked through a metal detector and in general there were policemen in and around the school. Oddly, almost every high profile mass shooting that I’ve heard of in America happened somewhere outside what we called the “ghetto” a couple decades ago.

Over the last few months, it’s become so commonplace to hear about marketplace bombings in Iraq that kill 48 people at a time, that the number thirty one just doesn’t seem that horrifying to me at a visceral level. When Charles Whitman opened fire from the tower at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, people talked for months about the fact that he killed sixteen people that day. My guess is that we’ve become so desensitized by the near daily casualty reports in Iraq that this incident may fall from the public consciousness in a matter of weeks. For instance it’s been weeks since I heard anyone mention the school shootings in Amish country (also a heavily-armed lone gunman) and Wisconsin that happened in the same week just a few months ago.

The mantra in our culture for more than a generation has been “Guns don’t kill people, people do.”

Actually it’s people with guns who do it and all too frequently it turns out to be certifiably crazy people who were allowed to accumulate staggering quantities of weapons who killed people with their guns. I know the whole “Guns yes, crimes with guns no” business falls right in line with the paradigm of “individual responsibility” that has dominated the rhetoric of America politics far too long.

It runs something like this:
1) Poverty is a problem of not wanting to work hard enough or take risks.
2) Teenage pregnancy is an issue of having the will to avoid sex and using your mind and spirit to control your body at the time when the body is clearly its most hormonal.
3) Drugs and other addictions are a matter of “Just saying no.”
4) Even consumer and employee safety are thought to be matters of “Educate yourself” or better yet start your own business.
5) Mayhem with automatic weapons naturally is just a function of people breaking the law and why should we punish those who enjoy collecting assault weapons to maybe hunt the editors of national hunting magazines.

It’s time for our culture to talk about sustainability in all senses. My vision of this is a bit different from the White House’s notion of “Individual Accountability” for anyone who doesn't have the money or the power to buy their way out. I still say, if that were the case shouldn’t the Constitution have started “I the people to serve my own interests and the mysterious powers of the invisible hand.”

I believe sane societies and people don’t just look out for themselves. Sane people look out for each other. Sane people understand that no human being is rational 24/7 or even necessarily capable of controlling his/her actions in a thoughtful manner. Teenagers are not uniformly virtuous. Some people are more chemically and psychologically susceptible to drugs, alcohol, and food than others. Some adults get angry faster than they can control. It doesn’t make them bad people or necessarily unworthy. It does mean that we should set up our communities in ways that minimize these temptations instead of maximizing the profit that can be made off of them.

Bottom line, there were thirty-one people, most of them very young, all of them law abiding in Blacksburg, Virginia this morning who had rights too, rights that the White House somehow neglected to mention this morning.

I am deeply sorry for the victims in Blacksburg. I am livid about having an administration that pretends to care when these tragedies happen, but really does nothing about it when the day is done. Just ask the people of New Orleans. Baghdad is not the only place America needs an exit plan.


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