Sunday, December 21, 2014

Notes from the Cave: Christmas Week Edition



So in case you've been living under a rock, or otherwise pay very little attention to me, I recently published my 9th book on Amazon.com.  It's a history of American political parties.  Each chapter covers a different political party, and I generally go in chronological order, starting with the Federalists of the 1790s and going up through the modern day.  Each chapter ends with a summary of the vital statistics for the party in question.  In addition to readers interested in political history, it's also a good book for anyone interested in American history in general, because our political history is interwoven so closely with our national history.  It's also a great resource for students and teachers.

Buy it here and be sure to leave me a nice review :)



Also, remember that as an e-book, it would make a great last minute gift idea, since it gets delivered instantly.  

I don't remember if I've noted it in previous editions of NFTC, but now that I've finished my political parties book, I am working on a novel.  It's not a new novel, but an old one that I finished in 2004.  I'm attending a writer's conference in Louisville in February and have paid for a 10-minute, one-on-one interview with a literary agent where I will have the opportunity to pitch a novel.  Since there wasn't time to write something new, I decided to pick one of my old ones, re-write/re-work it, and use that.  The book in question is an adventure thriller set in Australia.  I'm under a time limit, so the pressure is on, and I've still got a lot of work to do.  I've pretty much been working on it every day, including weekends and holidays.  

Today is the Sunday before Christmas and we are celebrating with M's Indiana relatives at her parents' house.  Now that they have moved to our side of the river, it's only a short ten minute drive. That's really nice, because in the past we've always had to drive forty minutes to get to her parent's house.  I'm actually looking forward to sitting around all day eating, talking, and watching TV.

My parents were in town from Texas for Christmas last weekend and we had a good time.  It's weird to realize this will be the last Christmas they have to travel up here to see us.  By this time next year, they should be retired and living here.  Dad moved down there in 1991, and Mom joined him when I graduated from high school in 1993, so I've pretty much never had my parents close by in my adulthood.  It will be weird having them accessible.  Weird for them too, I'm sure.  

I recently finished Ken Follett's Century Trilogy - a series of three books about several families set against the history of the 20th century and its biggest events.  The books are all really long, but they were good and are certainly recommended for anyone interested in 20th century world history.  They did not have the magic of his historical epic Pillars of the Earth, which still remains my undisputed favorite novel of all time, but I gave them each 4 stars on Goodreads.  I'm currently reading a novel by Dan Simmons, a historical/horror novelist I just discovered this year.  I loved the first book of his I read - The Terror - and this one, which is called Summer of Night, looks like it's going to be really good (I've only read one chapter, but it was a good start).

For a brief UK basketball update, they absolutely demolished UCLA last night (the halftime score was an unbelievable 41-7), and if they can beat Louisville (at Louisville) next weekend, they have a very, very good chance of going undefeated this year.  Rhetoric aside, if they continue like they've played in their first 12 games, they could be among the greatest college basketball teams in history.  They have to win a national title first, of course, but unless something drastic happens, you'd be a fool to bet against them.  

In honor of Christmas, how about a list of Christmas favorites?

Favorite Christmas Movie: Scrooge, starring Albert Finney.  This is a British musical version of the classic Dickens tale, made in about 1970.  It's exactly what you'd expect a British musical from 1970 to be like, and I absolutely adore it. 

Favorite Classic Christmas Song: Here We Come a'Wassailing, as sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Ford's Christmas songs were a major part of the soundtrack to my childhood Christmases, and this one has always been my favorite.  His voice fairly screams "Christmas" to me, and I just love this particular tune.  

Favorite Modern Christmas Song: Christmas Canon Rock, by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  This was a no-brainer.  I'm pretty much a traditional Christmas music guy...I don't like much Christmas music made after 1980 (Amy Grant being a major exception), but I love a lot of the Christmas music done by TSO.  What could be better than a fusion of three of my favorite music genres: Christmas, Classical, and Hard Rock?  

Best Christmas of All Time: 1988.  I still think of this as the last Christmas of my childhood, and also the best.  I was 13 and in 8th grade, and it was really the last year that I still maintained that spark of magical childhood excitement over the Christmas holiday.  We had just moved to Cincinnati from Louisville that summer, and my parents went a little crazy with the presents that year, I think probably because they felt guilty for uprooting me from my friends and comfort zone.  I definitely didn't transition well to the move, and looking back now, I suspect that Christmas was partly their attempt to assuage my pubescent angst.  I don't remember everything I got, but I know I got a TV for my room, and bunch of other crap that I wanted.  

I suppose that's enough for now.  As per the norm, I feel like I had more to say, but now I can't remember.  Merry Christmas!    

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Blog Post Where I Weigh In On The Ferguson Thing

So I have pretty much kept my opinions to myself on this whole Ferguson thing, which (you're probably thinking) is rather unusual for me.  But I finally decided it was time for me to break my silence.

On the one hand, you have supporters of the victim, Michael Brown, portraying the event as the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed black teenager by a racist white cop.  On the other hand, you have supporters of the cop, Darren Wilson, calling it justified self-defense and even disparaging Brown by calling him a thug who got what was coming to him.

My opinion is that both sides are woefully out of touch with reality.  Let's talk about Michael Brown first.

Michael Brown was 18 years old and had recently earned a high school diploma.  A teenager, yes.  But also an adult under the law.  Constantly referring to him as a teenager gives the impression that he was a child, like Trayvon Martin, rather than an actual adult, which is what he was.  I've even seen him specifically referred to as a child by supporters.  One witness consistently called him a "kid" during her interviews.  He was, in fact, a 6'4", 250-pound adult.  Many of the pictures shown of him by supporters depict him several years younger than he was at the time of the shooting.    

Despite a lot of claims by racists and others with a tendency toward extreme views, it is not known if Brown had criminal record prior to this event.  A judge refused to release his juvenile record, but did note that he had no felony complaints against him (she could provide that information because felony juvenile records are not protected by Missouri juvenile privacy laws).  So while we know he was never charged with a felony, we do not know if he had misdemeanor charges against him in his past.

We do, however, know that he had robbed a convenience store just minutes before his death.  This was caught on video and is undisputed.  In it, he is seen "strong-arming" a clerk while stealing a handful of cigars.  Supporters have said this is an irrelevant smear campaign.  It's not.  It gives a vital indication of the kind of person Michael Brown was capable of being in the right circumstances.  It proves he was not always the "gentle giant" he was described by acquaintances as being.  He was, in fact, capable of aggressive and violent behavior, and the fact that he had just engaged in this sort of behavior minutes before the confrontation with Wilson is important.  It shows the frame of mind he was in at the time.

Now let's talk about Darren Wilson.  Wilson was a 5-year veteran of the police force and had never had any complaints against him.  He is also 6'4" but quite a bit thinner than Brown was, at only 210 pounds.  Right before his confrontation with Brown, he got word of the convenience store robbery.  The robbery, however, is not why he confronted Brown.  He stopped Brown for a different reason, but, upon seeing cigars in his hand, realized he was probably the suspect in the robbery.

Here is what we know happened, based on undisputed facts.  Brown and his friend, following the robbery, were walking down the middle of a city street.  Wilson drove by, rolled down his window, and told them to get on the sidewalk.  Claiming they were almost to their destination, they refused.  Wilson then stopped his vehicle and backed up to block their path.  At this point a scuffle ensued between Brown, standing at the SUV window, and Wilson, still sitting inside the car, trying to open the door.  Witnesses differed as to the nature of the scuffle (who started it and what actually went on), but eventually, Wilson drew his gun and fired a shot, which hit Brown in the hand.

After the shot, Brown and his friend (who was apparently just watching) ran in opposite directions, and Wilson started chasing Brown.  What happened next is impossible to know for certain, because the only reports we have are Wilson's and a bunch of conflicting eyewitness accounts.  Wilson says he told Brown to stop and get on the ground numerous times.  Some witnesses corroborated this story.  Wilson then says Brown stopped, turned around, and started running towards him like he was going to attack him.  He had one hand at his waistband, under his shirt, as if going for a gun.  That's when Wilson fired again, hitting Brown several times and killing him.  The trajectory of the final, and killing, shot through the top of the skull indicates Brown was either falling, or ducking his head in a charge, when that last shot was fired.

Some witnesses say Wilson fired before Brown turned around, and those shots are why Brown turned and starting moving toward Wilson.  Some also claimed Brown was hit in the back by these shots, though the autopsy proved that wasn't true.  Some witnesses also claimed that when Brown turned around and started moving toward Wilson, his hands were raised and he was telling Wilson to stop shooting and telling him he wasn't armed.  Wilson disputes this, and some other witnesses also did not see Brown's arms raised in surrender.  One witness corroborated Wilson's account that Brown had his arms down, with his hand under his shirt, though this witness described Brown as being "balled up" rather than going for a gun.  Another witness said Brown's hands were up momentarily, but then he lowered them and began moving forward.  

Most every witness agreed that Brown was not charging Wilson, but walking and stumbling forward as Wilson shot at him.

So what are we to make of all this?  My opinion is that a young man lost his life, and that's a tragedy.  It's also my opinion that Officer Wilson probably overreacted in the heat of the moment and kept shooting when he could have reasonably stopped.  But to suggest that Brown was an innocent victim of a brutal murder by an unconscionable police officer is ludicrous.  Not one single solitary fact of the case suggests such a conclusion.

We know that Brown was capable of aggressive and even violent behavior.  He had just displayed such behavior minutes before the run-in with Wilson.  We also know that he and his friend, after robbing a convenience store, started strolling down the middle of a city street.  Additionally, we know he refused a reasonable police order to get out of the middle of the street.  Finally, regardless of who started it or what exactly transpired during the scuffle, we also know that he got into a physical altercation with a police officer and punched him at least once, as Wilson was diagnosed at a hospital later with a large bruise to his face.

When you make a series of choices like that, you are taking a very big risk of getting shot.  Any reasonable person would know and understand that.  Finally, we know that after Wilson fired the shot from the police SUV, Brown turned and ran off.  Again, any reasonable person understands that after you have just physically scuffled with a police officer, and that officer has fired a gun at you, it's probably a good idea to go ahead and get on the ground and stop resisting arrest.  Running is a really bad idea.  So is refusing to get on the ground when the officer tells you to do so.

What it boils down to is that every single choice Michael Brown made that day was the wrong choice.  His series of bad choices led directly to his death.  It is a tragic situation and Brown certainly did not deserve to die because of his actions that day.  But sometimes bad things happen to you when you make bad choices.  If Wilson had been a better cop, if he'd had more control of himself and of his emotions, Brown might still be alive.  The witness accounts do not corroborate Wilson's story that Brown charged at him.  Wilson's adrenaline was up and he was in a state of panic and clearly misinterpreted Brown's actions.  But then again, if Brown had done what a reasonable person would have done - lay on the ground and submit - I'm certain Wilson wouldn't have kept shooting.  There is no reason to suppose Wilson just decided he was going to murder an unarmed black guy that day.

And that's another thing that is worth noting...virtually every media report on this situation consistently refers to Brown as an "unarmed black teenager."  I've already noted why consistently calling him a teenager makes him sound younger than he was.  It's also totally irrelevant that he was unarmed.  A suspect doesn't have to be armed in order to be justifiably shot by a police officer.  If Wilson's story is true, and Brown was the aggressor who started the physical confrontation with the cop, punched him, and went for his gun, then he was totally within his legal right to shoot Brown.  Brown being unarmed doesn't mean anything.  Consider a burglar who breaks into a house and gets shot.  After the fact, would it matter if the burglar was unarmed at the time?

Supporters of Brown have painted Wilson like the aggressor, saying his story is a lie and that he's the one who grabbed Brown and pulled him toward the car and started the fight, then gunned him down as he ran off.  The facts of the case simply don't support this story (consider, for instance, the contusion to Wilson's cheek from a thrown punch, the wound to Brown's hand by the first shot, indicating his hand was on the gun when the shot was fired, no wounds to Brown's back, and front-side wounds consistent with a person who was moving forward at the time of the shots, etc.)

What's more likely, that a cop with no history of complaints against him suddenly one afternoon decided to assault a black person who pissed him off, then ultimately gunned him down in cold blood, or that the perpetrator of a strong-arm robbery who refused a police order to get out of the middle of the street actually started the physical confrontation that ultimately led to his death?

Even if that's not what happened...even if Wilson DID start the altercation...Brown doesn't get the benefit of the doubt because of the series of bad choices he made that afternoon.  This is why you don't rob convenience stores, refuse police orders, punch cops, and then run away.  It makes you look bad and it makes people assume you were the aggressor.

This is one of the reasons why I have said, since the start of this whole thing in August, that Brown is not a good figure for the black community, or the liberal community, to be rallying around.  Trayvon Martin was a true innocent victim of murder by an emotionally unstable racist.  Brown almost certainly wasn't, and even if he was, his series of bad choices certainly contributed to his own death.

I do believe that police officers are too quick to assume violence and weapons when it's a black guy versus a white guy.  I do believe that racial issues are still a problem in America's police departments.  These are issues we need to keep addressing, and if Brown's death can help us address those better, then his death doesn't have to be in vain.  But to portray his death as the brutal murder of an innocent black kid is unreasonable and unfair and only serves to polarize the country even further.  

I think the grand jury made the right choice.  There is no reason to distrust Wilson's account, and the eyewitness accounts were conflicting on many points.  Furthermore, several of the eyewitness accounts have changed several times in the retelling, hurting their credibility.  Even if Wilson did act rashly, there was simply not enough evidence to suggest probable cause for charging him.  If they had charged him, millions would have been spent in the prosecution, and there is virtually no chance he would have been convicted.

To finish up, here's my reconstruction, based on the evidence, of what I think happened.

Brown and his friend robbed the store.  They then began walking down the middle of the street, heading somewhere to smoke their cigars they had just stolen.  A cop told them to get out of the middle of the street.  Being brash, urban young men, they decided the cop's instruction wasn't fair, and refused.  The cop got mad, maybe more mad than he should have, slammed on his brakes, and backed up quickly across their path.

This pissed them off because they felt like it was unnecessarily aggressive.  Brown now found himself at the door of the SUV, and his blood was boiling because he could have been hit by the moving vehicle.  In anger, he lashed out at the cop, pushing the door closed as the cop tried to get out of the car.  A scuffle through the window then ensued, with Brown, in a fit of anger, throwing punches.  Maybe he went for the gun, maybe he didn't, but Wilson THOUGHT he was going for the gun, so he drew and fired, hitting Brown in the hand.

Brown then ran off in a panic, but another shot or two that buzzed by him caused him to turn around and raise his hands.  His hand, however, was throbbing from where it had just been hit by the shot from the car, so he dropped his hands down to his waist to hug it close to himself.  Rather than get on the ground, as Wilson was telling him to do, he started moving forward.  Maybe by that time he didn't even really realize what he was doing; he was just acting on instinct.  Wilson, because he was panicking and making false assumptions about a big black guy who had just assaulted him, mistook Brown's movement forward with arms down as more aggression, and fired again, thinking Brown was going for a gun at his waistband.  As Brown stumbled from the shots hitting his arm, his head went down and the final shot went through his skull, killing him.          

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Notes from the Cave

I just don't know what's been wrong with me for the past six months or so in regards to blogging.  I just haven't been making the time for some reason.  I will say that part of the reason for the lack of blog posts is that I have been working on my political parties book and FINALLY, after two years, almost have it done.

I'm working on the Epilogue right now, and then will still have a short Afterword to write, but will then be finished.  Then it'll just be editing and formatting it for e-book publication, and designing a cover.  I might actually pay someone to do that for me this time.  In the past, I've designed and created my own covers using various photo editing services.

I might also make this one available in print format as well.  When you publish independently through Amazon, they have an option for print publishing as well as e-book publishing, but I've never done it before.  From what I know about it, it's free to do, just like the e-book publishing, and their publishing house simply prints the books on demand.  So when someone orders through the website, they print the book, then ship it.  So there are no up-front costs for stocking books in the warehouse.

Another thing that has been taking my time over the last six weeks in particular is that I have begun learning Spanish.  I started on Labor Day Weekend and have been steadily learning each day since then.  I've always been good at languages and picked up German very quickly in high school.  I ended up taking four years in high school, then several more semesters in college.  My college professor actually tried to talk me into minoring in German, simply because I was so good at it.

So anyway, I've never regretted taking German, but have always wanted to learn Spanish too because it would be so much more useful in day-to-day society.  Like it or not, there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people in the U.S., and they are here to stay, language and all.  I'd like to be able to communicate with them when necessary, especially since they are sometimes my patients at the hospital.

My goal is to get reasonably fluent in Spanish, then bone back up on my German, not because I ever have much opportunity to use German, but simply because I want to.  Heck, I might even tackle a third language (French?) after that.

Back when I was in Radiology school, I bought a book and learned some Spanish basics, but I never went beyond that.  The reason I finally started learning now is because I discovered Duolingo.  This is a website (Duolingo.com) that is totally free, and teaches you how to speak the language of your choice.  They also have a very useful app for phones and tablets.  I use the app on my phone for about 90% of my learning.  I have supplemented this app with several other Spanish-teaching websites and apps, as well as a Spanish-English dictionary and a Spanish verb conjugation dictionary, all on-line and by app.  Since Spanish is the widest taught and widest studied foreign language in the U.S., there are tons of free teaching resources online.  I had never realized this before now.  I always thought it was Rosetta Stone or a taking a class.  I didn't realize there were other options out there.  I'm only about 20% through Duolingo's lessons right now, and I am already as far in Spanish as I was in German by my third year of high school, or thereabouts.  That's the thing that's great about self-learning...you don't have to go at the classroom pace.  I'm already able to converse in Spanish, which is nice, since it's only been six weeks.

I've also been supplementing my learning by listening to Spanish stations on my satellite radio, and occasionally watching Spanish TV.  Of course I can't really follow any of it, but I can at least practice listening and picking out words and phrases.

The only drawback to self-learning online, versus taking a class, is that you miss out on that face-to-face interaction with a fluent speaker who can correct you and answer your questions.  This is one reason why I listen to the Spanish radio and watch Spanish TV...just to practice hearing the language spoken.  I also try to think in Spanish sometimes as a way of practicing speaking.  The Duolingo app certainly does have you do both those things - listen and speak - but it's not the same as actually conversing with someone in Spanish.  There is a nurse at work who speaks Spanish and I do talk to her a little bit, but not much more than a "Como estas?" "Muy bien, y tu" sort of thing.

Enough about that.  I am also in the process of revising and rewriting one of my old novels.  I haven't actually started the writing process yet...I want to finish my political parties book first.  But I have started reading through the old manuscript and making editorial plans.  I'm doing this because I have signed up for a writer's conference being held in Louisville next February.  It's an all-day workshop for learning how to get published.  Four literary agents will be there, and I have paid for a ten-minute one-on-one session with one of them, to pitch them a book.  I have also paid to have a professional editor - a guy who I actually follow on Twitter and who is the chief editor of Writer's Market, which is a major industry publication - to read and edit my query letter (which is the letter you send out to agents and publishers pitching your book).

So this is a really good opportunity for me, and it has given me the motivation I needed to pull out one of my old novels and get it ready to pitch to this agent in February.  I had to choose an old novel, rather than a new one, simply because I don't have enough time to finish any of the novels I currently have in progress (I have two in progress...I started one in 2004 and the other in about 2007, and both are only partially completed; I also have two or three others partially outlined but never started).  I would frankly rather use one of those in-progress novels, but I know it will be unrealistic to expect myself to finish one of them by February.  There's just not enough time.  So I'm taking one of my old novels - the last one I actually completed, in fact - and reworking/rewriting it to update it and try to make it the best it can possibly be.  It's a book I finished in 2003 called Walkabout.  It's a relatively short thriller about a fugitive hunt in Australia.  It needs a lot of work, but I think it has good potential to be sell-able.  It's certainly in line with some of the small-time thrillers I have read this year.

Amazon, in addition to offering independent publishing for authors, also has its own traditional publishing house for professional, published authors with agents.  Every month, they offer Amazon Prime customers a newly published book by one of these authors for free.  So I have read several thrillers this year published by "real" authors (not Indie authors) on Amazon's publishing imprint, and I can say for certain that Walkabout is as good as any of these books I've read. It certainly has that potential.

So there are two questions I face: can I draw the full potential out of the book in my rewrite; and can I pitch it well enough to an agent (whether the agent I meet in February, or some other agent), to get them on board with it?

Time will tell I guess.

It seems like there should be other things worthy of talking about, but I guess I've rambled on long enough.  Oh yeah...I did want to mention that I deactivated my Facebook account last week.  I've been sick of Facebook for a long time, and I finally just decided it was time for a break.  I'm sure I'll eventually go back...in fact I know I will, because I like to be able to stay in touch with certain people when I want...but for now it's kind of nice to just not be on there.  As a result, I can't share this post on Facebook, so a lot of my friends and normal readers will likely never see it.  Oh well.  If you're reading this, you must be a true fan, who either routinely visits my blog, or gets an email notification, so thanks :)


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

10 Fun Facts About George H. W. Bush

George Bush, the 41st President of the United States

1. George Herbert Walker Bush was born in Massachusetts in 1924, but grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut.  His father, Prescott Bush, was a prominent banker who entered politics and became a U.S. Senator in the 1950's.

2. Attending high school at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Bush was a standout student and athlete, lettering in both baseball and soccer.  After graduating in the spring of 1942, Bush immediately joined the Navy's air service where, at just 18 years of age, he was the Navy's youngest aviator at the time of his enlistment.

3. As a naval aviator, Bush saw action in World War II in the Pacific theater, serving in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, which was one of the largest aerial battles of the war.  Stationed aboard the USS San Jacinto, Bush flew a total of 58 combat missions in torpedo bombers and received multiple medals and citations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross.

4. After returning from the war in 1945, Bush married Barbara Pierce and they eventually had six children.  Following his marriage, he began attending Yale, where he graduated in less than three years, earning a degree in economics.  He captained the Yale baseball team during his time there, and played in two College World Series.

5. After graduating from Yale, Bush began working for an oil company in Texas, and by 1951 had started his own oil exploration company.  A few years later, he helped start another oil company, Zapata Petroleum Corporation, and became the company's president.  By the early 1960's, Bush was a millionaire and had begun getting involved in local politics in Texas, serving in Houston as the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party.

6. In 1964, Bush ran for his first public office, attempting to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, like his father before him.  He lost badly to the incumbent Democrat, but won election to the U.S. House of Representatives two years later, becoming the first Republican to represent the Houston district in Washington.  He served two terms in the House before trying again in 1970 for the U.S. Senate.  He was again defeated and instead took an appointment by president Richard Nixon to become an ambassador to the United Nations.  Later, after serving as the director of the CIA for a year under Gerald Ford, Bush temporarily retired from politics in 1977, returning to Houston to serve as a bank chairman and to teach part-time at Rice University.

7. During the 1980 presidential primary season, Bush ran for the Republican nomination.  He gained a lot of momentum and national attention when he won the season's first contest in Iowa, defeating the presumed front-runner, Ronald Reagan, by a slim margin.  Reagan, however, surged back in the following weeks, and Bush eventually dropped out of the race.  After Reagan won the nomination later that year at the party's national convention, he named Bush as his running mate.

8. Bush served as vice-president under Reagan for the next 8 years, before running for president again in 1988 after Reagan's two terms were finished.  This time, he easily won the Republican nomination, and, following a bitter campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis, won the presidency by a comfortable margin.  He became the first sitting vice-president since Martin Van Buren to be elected to the presidency (a span of more than 150 years).

9. Bush's presidency was primarily notable for the first Gulf War, in which the U.S. drove Iraqi forces out of oil-rich Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded in the summer of 1990.  Though the military operation was successful, Bush's popularity began to wane in the last half of his term, as people felt he had not finished the job with Iraq, leaving Saddam Hussein in power.  He was also widely criticized for breaking a prominent campaign promise about raising taxes.  Faced with an uphill battle for reelection in 1992 against a young, charismatic Bill Clinton, and a prominent third party candidate in fellow Texan Ross Perot, Bush lost his reelection bid.  To date, it was the last time a sitting president failed to win reelection.

10. After his presidency, Bush retired to his home in Houston, and in the years since, he has seen his oldest son, George W. Bush, serve two terms as president, as well as another son, Jeb Bush, serve as governor of Florida.  In 1999, he and his wife Barbara became the longest-married presidential couple in history, surpassing John and Abigail Adams.  Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn are roughly 18 months behind them.  The Bushes spend their time between their homes in Maine and Texas.    

Friday, September 05, 2014

Yet Another Blog Post About Obamacare

Yesterday at work, I heard someone talking about his future plans for retirement.  I don't know how old he was, but probably about 60.  He commented that he would like to retire at 62 and a half, but it depends on the cost of insurance.  If Obamacare makes his insurance too expensive, he stated, he'd work until 65 when he could get full Medicare, but he'd be "one pissed off guy."

Since I couldn't tell the guy off in person, let me go ahead and do it now.

First of all, Obamacare isn't the reason your insurance premium may or may not go up.  Insurance premiums have been steadily increasing since the mid-1990's.  In fact, one of the primary goals in reforming healthcare in the United States was to help stabilize out-of-control insurance costs.  If your for-profit, private insurer uses Obamacare as an excuse to raise your premiums, then what was their excuse every year before Obamacare was enacted?

The point, of course, is that Obamacare has nothing to do with whether or not your for-profit, private insurer raises their premiums.  Obamacare is just the latest fashionable scapegoat.

Secondly, if you want to retire at 62, but don't want to pay high insurance costs, maybe you should just not have insurance for 3 years.  Then you'd know what it feels like for the 25% of Americans who, before Obamacare, were uninsured because they couldn't afford it.  After three years, you can then go ahead and start drawing your government welfare entitlement for health care services, otherwise known as Medicare.

And don't give me any bullshit about how you worked your whole life and made good financial decisions so you could retire at 62, implying that somehow those without insurance haven't done the same thing.  Millions of people without insurance work full-time.

Before healthcare reform, millions couldn't afford health insurance.  Now they can.  If that causes your own personal costs to go up some, sorry about your luck.  First world problems, pal.

Finally, anyone who criticizes Obamacare is automatically making one of two implicit statements: either the way we had it before was better, or the Republicans would have come up with a better reform alternative.  I've got a statement for each of those implications.

First, if you think it was better before, you're ignorant and uninformed.  Virtually everyone, conservatives included, agreed that our old system was broken and in dire need of repair.

Second, if you think Republicans could have done better, my simple question is "Why didn't they?"  The Republicans were in power for 8 years, including 6 years with control over the White House, BOTH chambers of congress, AND a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.  Where was healthcare reform?  Nowhere to be seen, because they were too busy spending TRILLIONS of dollars on a foreign war against the wrong country.

Ancient history, I know.  But it's important to keep in mind when conservative mouthpieces start mouthing off about Obamacare, demonizing a man and a party who were trying to make healthcare more affordable and more accessible to more people, while having been complicit for years in an immoral war that costs thousands of people their lives and countless hundreds of thousands their homes and livelihoods.  And boy, hasn't it turned out just grand for those who survived?  Hashtag ISIS.

Get your priorities straight, jack, and then go ahead and shut the fuck up.      

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Notes from the Cave: Family Room Edition

What??  Two NFTCs in one week?  What's gotten in to me?

In any case, I'm working in the family room this morning because Sophie gets upset if she can't be up my ass 24/7, and she's not allowed in the Cave, so the laptop is performing its named duty and I'm sitting here typing while Sophie barks at the chair.



I read an article today about a 9-year-old girl who accidentally shot a gun instructor with an Uzi at a firing range in Nevada.  The poor man's death is tragic, undoubtedly.  Even more tragic is the fact that our society thinks it's okay for a 9-year-old to even look at, much less handle, an Uzi.

It's no secret that I don't like guns.  And it's no secret that I would like to see stricter gun laws in our country.  But I don't think there is any gun-related issue that I feel more strongly about than the utterly insane notion that it's okay for kids to own, handle, and fire deadly weapons.  Yes, I've heard all the arguments from the other side...how teaching children to respect guns and use them safely is how you create responsible gun-owners, yadda, yadda, yadda.

It's all horseshit.

By the same argument, children should be permitted to drive once they are tall enough to reach the pedals - which for most kids means about 13.  The truth is, children under 16 should not be permitted to handle or fire any kind of gun anywhere, ever, for any reason.  Period.

Okay, I'm off my political soap box.  Forgive me.

I had a very productive day off yesterday.  I finished the ghost-writing project I am doing for a friend, I mowed the lawn, I slaughtered a shit-ton of weeds around the fence and the edges of the house with some Weed B Gone, and I got the oil changed in my car.  I did all that and managed to take a nap too.  All in all, it was a good day.  I'm back to work this afternoon, but we're going to the lake for the holiday weekend coming up.  Hopefully the weather will hold up for us.

I'm waiting right now for UPS to arrive with a new umbrella for the deck outside.  A strut broke on our current umbrella, so one side of it is sagging and we look like proud white trash.  Until this heat wave of the last week, it's been a really nice summer for sitting in the shade on the deck.  I'm hoping to have some more nice outdoor weather once we get into September and October.


Check out that pink cummerbund!  This is me and M before Junior Prom at Princeton High School, 1992.  We'd been dating for a year and a half by this point.  I remember thinking I would have liked it better if she'd just done her hair like normal, instead of getting it all professionally gussied up.

Speaking of hair...this photograph proves that I once had it.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Notes from the Cave

It's been six weeks since I made a post on my blog.  That's problematic, and I apologize.

The good news is that at least part of the reason for my absence is because I've been getting some writing done.  I've made progress on my political parties book, which has been 90% complete for about a year now, and I've also been doing a significant ghost writing project for a friend, which is also almost complete.  

The biggest problem, as always, when it comes to writing is simply finding time.  Working 2nd shift, I leave the house around 1 pm every day.  I typically get up around 9 or 9:30, so that gives me 3 or 4 hours each morning.  That's plenty of time to write, but unfortunately I also have to take care of a 5-month old puppy who needs a lot of attention, exercise, eat lunch, and shower and get ready for work.  

By the time I've done all that, there's hardly any time left for writing.  I basically have to not exercise if I want to have a decent amount of time to write.  But that, of course, isn't something I need to give up.  I could, of course, get up earlier, or forego my beloved morning bath (yes, I'm gay), but working 2nd shift, it's really not feasible for me to get up much earlier without suffering for it on the back end of the day.  As for the bath, I do give that up a lot of days, but not always. 

Anyway, that's the problem I'm currently facing with writing.  The other thing to keep in mind is that, since my heart attack, my daily routine has become very important to me (that's where that morning bath comes in), and so that's another obstacle...figuring out a way to make writing part of my daily routine, rather than a disruption to it.




Sophie is entering the adolescent phase of puppy-hood, and although she's fully housebroken and well-trained, she is starting to test the waters a bit.  She's developed a habit of barking a lot to get attention, or nipping at feet/legs/pants.  I'm working to get that under control and am hoping it's just an adolescent phase.  She's been getting her adult teeth in...I think we've found four baby teeth to date.  She's almost six months, so she'll be having her womb torn out of her abdomen here pretty soon.  

I really do love that I'm able to walk her on a leash and actually take legitimate walks with her.  Our last dog, Finley, was basically never leash trained at all, and our first dog, Katie, would pull like crazy and also wouldn't let you get more than a few hundred yards from home before refusing to go farther.  With Sophie, we walk a mile or more at a time.  We did about a mile and a quarter yesterday.  

I've also recently added a new trick to her growing bag of tricks...the command is "Sphinx," or "Sit like a Sphinx," and she will do just that...lay down with paws outstretched in front and her head up.

I have to work this weekend, but next weekend (Labor Day) I am off until Monday night.  Unfortunately, I have to work third shift on Labor Day, but that will still allow us to go to the lake all weekend and come back Monday - which we would have done anyway even if I didn't work that night.  I'm then off again Tuesday and Wednesday too.  So with the exception of that one third shift, I'll essentially have five days off in a row without having to take a vacation day.  

As my faithful Twitter followers know, I have been watching Deadwood on Amazon Prime.  I have the Amazon TV box, so I can watch Prime videos on my TV as well as my Kindle.  I've waited 10 years to see Deadwood and it has not disappointed.  I just finished the first season and I loved it.  I'm already bummed that there are only two seasons left.  

I'm currently reading two books (one non-fiction, one fiction, as usual).  The non-fiction is a narrative history of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 called, aptly enough, the Norman Conquest.  For you history dummies, the Norman Conquest, by William the Conqueror, is what established the modern British monarchy and turned England into the country it is today - which is important since Britain would come to have such a profound influence on the entire world.  

The fiction book I'm reading is the first in a series by British writer Ken Follett called Fall of Giants.  It's historical fiction told against the background of World War I, and the second and third books in the series carry the story - and the families in it - up through the rest of the 20th century.  Like his other historical novels, it is absolutely wonderful.  Highly recommended it to anyone who likes historical fiction, and particularly 20th century history.  



  

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Great Quote About Wealth Disparity

I saw this quote today and just had to share.

"The problem is not wealth. It's wealth without a conscience. The problem is wealth that is untroubled by the fact that some people are inordinately rich because some people are inordinately poor."

There's a reason that Jesus said, in Luke 6: "Blessed are you who are poor," and "Woe to you who are rich."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Bit of Self-Reflection on a Tuesday

For those of you who don't know, I've started riding my bike again this year, and I am really enjoying being back on it again.  It has felt nice to conquer my fear of it after the little incident that occurred on it last March.  

In any case, one of the drawbacks to riding my bike is that my little area of the world is quite hilly. I suppose if I was training for the Tour de France, this would be a good thing.  But since I just ride for exercise and leisure, it kind of sucks to have very few flat areas where you can just sit back and ride.  

Because of this, a significant portion of my bike rides take place in a church parking lot that's just up the road from my neighborhood.  I ride up there and then spend a good chunk of the hour or so that I'm on my bike just riding in figure-eights around this nice, flat parking lot.  It provides a nice area for me to ride and get a decent workout, even though it's kind of boring.  

In any case, when I was riding my figure-eights today, I got to thinking about my stalled-out writing career, and the fact that I haven't finished a piece of fiction in about eight years, and haven't finished, or even done significant work on, a novel in eleven years.  I think being 39, and on the verge of the big Four-Oh, is weighing on me, because I've been thinking a lot about this lately.  I basically "gave up" long fiction when I turned 30, although it was only supposed to be temporary, so I could go back to school and get established in a good job before returning to novel writing later.

I graduated in December of 2009 and got a job in 2010, but the novel writing has pretty much remained in the OFF position.  I've made a few false starts on editing old books, and a false start or two on some short stories, but for all intents and purposes, I have simply become a small-time blogger, a work newsletter editor, and an occasional ghostwriter for friends' educational and professional needs.  And that's it.  There's nothing fiction about me anymore.  There's nothing book about me anymore.  

And I hate that.

So as I was circling the nice flat, easy-riding church parking lot today, doing my figure-eights, I was thinking about how I have done the same thing with my writing career - and my career in general - as I do with my bike riding routine. Avoiding the rigors of the hills and valleys, taking the easy way out, and just riding in circles.  

When I was 20 years old and a piano major in college, I didn't want to practice the piano two hours a day anymore, or give a scary public senior recital, so I quit music and majored in history instead.  Why did I major in history?  Because I wanted to do something important with that degree?  No, because it was the only thing I could major in and still graduate on time.

I took the easy way out.  Then, when I graduated, did I go on to graduate school, as I had long planned?  No, I decided to pursue a writing career, saying I'd go back to school when I was 30 if nothing panned out with the writing.  

When I turned 30, did I go to graduate school?  I did apply, yes, but when I didn't get accepted, I gave up and decided to do something simpler - namely X-ray school. 

Now I'm an X-ray tech, and have I gone on to get certified in another, higher-paying modality, like I planned in X-ray school?  

Nope. 

Instead I'm just riding in circles on the flat ground.  Taking the easy way out. 

Now, there's nothing at all wrong with being an X-ray tech.  That's not my point.  I enjoy being an X-ray tech and I'm not really interested right now in moving into a different area of imaging.  I also don't have much interest in administration.  

But I do want to write.  And there is no reason anymore, other than sheer laziness and taking the easy way out, that I shouldn't be writing again like I did in my 20's, when I completed five novels in about seven years.  

It's time for me to stop riding in circles.  It's time to stop avoiding the hills.  It's time to start seriously writing fiction again.

With that in mind, this anonymous comment I received recently on a blog post where I posted an Emily Dickinson poem, is quite timely: 
I have stumbled into your blog before, I see much less poetry these days! Write! :) Emily is wonderful but I enjoy your creativity. I'll undoubtedly peek back in a few months to look for progress. Lol 
I have no idea who left this comment, and the context implies that it's not someone I know.

So I prefer to think of it as a little vote of confidence, a little voice of encouragement, from God or the Universe or whatever you want to call it.

It's time to get to work.  It's time to write.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

How the Government Spends Your Tax Dollars

The White House website has an interesting interactive page where you can go and look at how and where your federal tax dollars are spent.  Since people are always complaining about paying taxes, especially in regards to their pre-conceived notions about how those tax dollars are being used by the government, I thought it would be instructive to take a close look, based on this information from the government's website, about where, exactly your tax dollars go.  

The following information is based on 2013 tax and spending receipts, and is based on a married couple with two children who make $80,000 per year.  Let's call this family the Smith Family.  

The biggest single category that the Smith's 2013 income tax dollars went to was Medicare.  $484.89, or about 11% of their total income taxes paid, went to support Medicare payments to doctors and pharmacies.

Almost as much, $467.09, went to Medicaid (which provides basic health care services for poor people and children).  

Another $140 or so went to various other healthcare-related services, for a grand total of $1,093.50, or about 25% of the Smith's total income tax expenditures.  

Almost the exact same amount - $1,076.13, or another 25% of the Smith's tax dollars - went to various programs falling under the category of National Defense.  That category basically includes everything related to the U.S. military and its active operations and expenditures.  I stress the word "active" because it does not include Veteran's Administration costs or military retirement and disability programs.  Those two categories fall under a different heading.  The Smith's spent $213.15 on Veteran's benefits (including healthcare and income and housing support), and $224.00 on military retirement and disability benefits.  

Therefore, the total expenditures related to the military and its services, was about $1,500.00, or roughly 35% of the Smith's total income tax dollars - making it by far the largest category. 

The next category is what we generally think of as "welfare."  It includes a number of programs, including Unemployment Insurance ($23.44 for the Smith's in 2013), food stamps and school lunches for poor kids ($168.86), Supplemental Security Income, which pays for assistance to elderly poor and disabled people ($91.60), and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which is your basic welfare check to poor people ($30.39).  That's right, the infamous welfare check cost this family of four, making a household income of $80K per year, exactly thirty dollars in 2013.  

The total expenditures for the Smith family in this "welfare" category is $814.81. However, this category includes the aforementioned military retirement and disability program, and that's actually the largest program in this category.  It also includes retirement programs for railroad workers, child care, foster care, and adoption support, and spending related to various tax credits.  

What that means is that the total amount that the Smith family paid for actual federal welfare programs in 2013 was $314.29.

What remains after these large categories are a number of smaller categories like water and land management, environmental protection, educational programs, international affairs, including support of U.S. embassies abroad, border security, the federal judicial system, and natural disaster support funding.    

All told, the Smith family spent about $4,300.00 in income taxes in 2013.  Defense expenses, together with Medicare and Medicaid, accounted for almost exactly half of these dollars - about $2,200.00.  Adding in Veteran's Administration spending and military pensions, the amount goes up to about $2700.00, or about 60% of the total.  The remainder was divided up among several dozen smaller categories.

In addition to these federal income taxes, the Smith's, of course, also paid $4,960.00 for Social Security, and $1,160.00 for Medicare.  This second Medicare tax is separate from the $484 the Smith's paid to support Medicare payments to doctors and pharmacies.  This Medicare tax, which is taken separate from income tax, supports hospital services.  

In the end, the vast majority - almost 50% of the total - of the Smith's federal taxes went to Social Security.  About 20% went to Medicare and Medicaid.  About 15% went to Defense, military, and veteran spending.  

Those three categories alone - Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and Defense/Veterans - account for about 85% of the total federal taxes paid by the Smith's in 2013.  

Every single other federal government spending category is spread out among the remaining 15% of the Smith's tax expenditures.  Perhaps most significantly, roughly 3% of the Smith's total went to various federal welfare programs.  Only 0.3% (30 dollars) went to TANF, or the infamous "welfare check."  

I hope you'll keep these facts and figures in mind the next time you start to feel righteous indignation in how the federal government is spending your tax dollars.  It might also be important to remember that the government spends a great deal of money on so-called "corporate welfare," which is comprised of grants and subsidies to businesses.  This spending is categorized differently from other government spending and is therefore not included in the above analysis of how individual tax dollars are spent.  However, you should keep in mind that the U.S. government spends about 100 billion a year in these corporate subsidies, which averages out to about $6,000 per family in the United States.  


Sunday, June 08, 2014

Notes from the Cave

It's been a bad few months if you're a Serene Musings fan.  And since there are SO many of you, that makes for a lot of unhappy people.  Thankfully, here's a Notes from the Cave for you.

When I was a kid, I really loved the Smurfs.  The Smurfs were pretty much my #1 cartoon.  Being that I grew up before the days of Cartoon Network, Netflix, the proliferation of every show imaginable on DVD and Blu-Ray, etc., cartoons were available on Saturday morning and for an hour or two in the afternoon after school.  And that was it.  As for the Smurfs - they were only shown on Saturday morning.  For that reason, I spent pretty much every Saturday morning glued to the television, with the highlight of the morning being the Smurfs, which I seem to recall came on at 9:30 and were shown until 11:00.  

90 minutes of cartoon bliss for young Scott.

Anyway, throughout my childhood, there was one episode in particular that was sort of like Shangri-La or the Lost City of Atlantis for me.  This was because I had seen this particular episode one time when I was really young, and I had really loved it, but then I never saw it again.  It entailed a Rip Van Winkle theme, and involved the Smurfs dressing up like old men with white beards in order to teach Lazy Smurf a lesson when he woke up from his nap.  Like Rip Van Winkle, Lazy thought he'd been asleep for decades, and everyone had aged in his absence.  

Even though rerun episodes were shown every week (except for the fall, when the new season episodes ran), I never again saw this particular episode.  Practically every week, I would wonder if maybe this was the week they'd show it...but it never came to pass.  The Smurfs got canceled in 1990, and I was a 15-year-old high school student by that time anyway, and I never did get to see that episode again.  It became, as I said, a sort of Lost Episode that I often thought about over the years.  It even took on a sort of mythical quality for me.  Had I really ever seen this episode, or did I dream it up one day in my childhood?  

Fast forward to the first week of June, 2014.  My 8-year-old daughter is on a Smurfs kick right now for some reason and so we were on Amazon Prime looking for Smurfs episodes to download for her.  

And that's when it happened.  

I'm flipping through the available episodes when I see this title scroll by on the screen:

Smurf Van Winkle 

There it is!  The Lost Episode!  IT DOES EXIST!  

So I downloaded it for $1.99 and finally, after a 32-year wait, I got to watch this mythical episode once again.  

Reading about it online, I discovered that it was an episode that first aired in Season Two - specifically in November of 1982, which is when I would have been in 2nd grade. Presumably, that was the one time I saw it.  

So that's one thing I can mark off my bucket list. 

As some of you may know, we recently got a new dog.  Her name is Sophie and she is a pure-bred Havanese, which is a toy breed similar in size to a Maltese or Westie.  



They were originally bred as circus dogs in Cuba (hence the name, which references Havana), and they are very good at doing tricks and learning commands.  We've had Sophie for about a month now, she's 14 weeks old, and I have already taught her to sit, stay, come, heel, beg, fetch, and ring bells on command.  We're continuing to work on those commands and also on leash walking.  We've had two previous dogs, and neither of them ever walked very well on a leash.  So I have been determined to leash train Sophie, and although it has been a battle at times, she is picking it up.  It's really important to me to be able to take my dog on a walk and not have her pulling and yanking on the leash the whole time.  

I planned for this dog much better than the previous dogs we bought.  I even read a book, before we got her, about raising puppies, written by Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer.  His techniques really do work.  Like he recommends, I have established myself as Sophie's pack leader, and it really does make a difference.  I can see now how we made numerous mistakes with our previous dogs, Katie (who died a few years back) and Finley, who was so bad we had to give him away after a year and a half.  

We went to Disney World in April and that was really fun.  It was my first time back since I was 15 years old, and it was the first time for my kids.  We went with my sister-in-law's family, so they kids got to experience it with their cousins.  



We had a really good time, and my 12-year-old actually acted like her old self for a week.  It was so nice to have a daughter who wasn't sullen and hostile every waking moment of the day!  Naturally, she went right back to normal when we got home.  Oh well. 

In July, we are going to see my parents in Texas.  It will be the first time we've gone there since 2008, and likely the last time we go, since my parents intend to retire next year and move up here to be closer to us.  That trip in 2008 is the only time I've been in the last decade, and the 6 years that have elapsed since that trip is the longest I've gone without a visit down there.  

Seems like there should be more to talk about, but I'll spare you.  


Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Poem for May

Emily Dickinson has always been one of my favorite poets, and this is one of my favorite poems by her.  I was thinking of it today as I biked past a wide open field, so today seemed like a good day to post it.


TO make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Thoughts on Easter

For me, Easter isn't about empty tombs and Jesus's crucified body coming back to life. If you are like many people, that's what it is for you, and that's okay.

But for me, it's not important whether Jesus was bodily resurrected, or whether resurrection is better understood as a biblical metaphor.

What matters is its significance. What does it mean for us in the 21st century? And, more importantly, how does it change us?

For me, Easter is a celebration of the abundant life Jesus taught, embodied, and exemplified. It's a celebration of living life to the fullest - fully awake in the present moment - being the very best you can be, and loving to the fullest extent. It means embodying the lifestyle Jesus embodied - one of compassion, inclusiveness, selflessness, integrity, and hope. And those aren't just fancy words. There must be real action behind them.

Compassion: genuinely caring for the needs and concerns of others. Helping others.

Inclusiveness: recognizing that everyone, no matter what, is worthy of the love of God, and thus your love too. No one is excluded from God's kingdom.

Selflessness: putting the needs of others before your own. Living for others.

Integrity: embodying fairness and equality and honesty. Living ethically.

Hope: working to make positive changes now in order to make a better tomorrow for all people. Bringing about the kingdom of God.

That last one is important because hope isn't just about looking toward some future time when maybe things will be better. Hope is a proactive action. As one of my favorite bible scholars has shown, the advent of God's kingdom, in the biblical tradition, isn't a passive thing to be awaited. It's a collaboration between us and God. 

The kingdom of God becomes a reality on earth when we live this way. Jesus becomes Christ resurrected, and Easter becomes real, when we embody this life he modeled for us.


Monday, April 14, 2014

A Poem for April

I wrote this poem in 2007.  It's not a great poem, but it's the only one I ever wrote about April.  So here it is.

---

april alley cat

the cat
sits perched
atop a red SUV
in a downtown parking lot
on a cold april day

just staring at me
as though in a challenge
“what’re you gonna do about it”

not a damn thing
because its cold outside
and i want to get inside to my tea

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

"Transphobic" and Other Ridiculous Nonsense


Okay, so if you haven't heard the hubbub, here's what happened: at the Academy Awards the other night, Ellen DeGeneres, who was hosting, pointed out Liza Minelli in the audience and said: "Hello to the best Liza Minelli impersonator I've ever seen."  After everyone laughed, she added: "Good job, sir."

A lot of people - mostly those who don't realize the two women are friends - felt like the joke was mean and have been criticizing Ellen over it.  For instance, Sarah Thyre, who is an actress and writer (and also married to Conan's sidekick Andy Richter) tweeted:

Another person said this:


As a result of this backlash, some people have even gone so far as to accuse Ellen of being "transphobic."  Or, at the very least, stating that her joke was transphobic.

Transphobic?  Pardon my French, but are you fucking kidding me?

[rant on]
Okay, first of all, Ellen is openly and proudly gay and has been one of the biggest supporters of the LBGTQLMNOP (or whatever it's called) community for her entire career.  In fact, Ellen's prominent support of this community is one of the reasons why it is so widely accepted in modern society.  Ellen is a goddamned pioneer in this field, for crying out loud.  To suggest she is "transphobic," or that her joke was motivated by "transphobia," is ABSURD.  She and Liza Minelli are friends, it was a harmless joke, and, most importantly, the joke was referring not to transgendered people, but to the fact that drag queens (who, by the way, are not trannies, by the very definition of the word) frequently impersonate Liza Minelli!

Secondly, what the fuck is transphobia?!  There is no such thing as transphobia.  Just because you can cleverly take a Latin prefix and Greek suffix and add them together doesn't mean it's a real thing.  Transgendered people represent a tiny little fraction of the overall population.  They don't get their own phobia, mkay?  I started losing my hair when I was in college and have suffered bald jokes my entire adulthood.  Do I go around calling people "alopeciaphobic"?  Of course not, because that would be fucking stupid.  

I realize that transgendered people are frequently criticized and made the butt of jokes, and sometimes even persecuted and mistreated, but then again, so are a lot of people, and we don't go around inventing unique words for all of them in an effort to create a category that doesn't really exist.

If someone mistreats a tranny, or makes cruel jokes at the expense of a tranny, they're not transphobic, they're just an asshole.  And in any case, Ellen's joke doesn't fit either scenario!
[rant off]

Most of you know I'm an avowed liberal in practically every sense of the word.  I'm normally the one defending accusations like "racist" or "homophobic" when conservatives suggest those words are overused or inapplicable.  I think both those words represent legitimate categories.

But the word "transphobia," and especially the accusation that Ellen's joke was "transphobic," is just stupid.  In modern society, people seem to think they have a right to not be offended.  Sorry, but you don't have that right.

Just because something offends you doesn't mean you get to invent your own little category and bandy it about like a whip.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

10 Fun Facts About Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States

1. Born in Staunton, Virginia, in 1856, Thomas Woodrow Wilson was a child during the Civil War.  His father's parents had lived in Ohio and his grandfather had published an anti-slavery newspaper, but his father, a prominent presbyterian minister, had taken his family to Virginia in the early 1850's, owned slaves, and supported the Confederacy during the war.  Wilson grew up in Augusta, Georgia, where his father served as the minister of the First Presbyterian Church.
 
2. Though he was largely home-taught, and struggled learning to read as a child, possibly due to dyslexia, Wilson was a good student and eventually attended Princeton.  He later studied law at University of Virginia and though he did not graduate, he later passed the bar and briefly worked as a lawyer in Georgia.  In 1883, he began attending Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a Ph.D. in history and political science.
 
3. While attending graduate school, Wilson married Ellen Axson and together they had three daughters.  Shortly after their marriage, Wilson finished his studies and began teaching at Bryn-Mawr College. 

4. In 1890, Wilson began teaching law and political science at Princeton and quickly gained prominence, becoming president of the university in 1902.  He held this position until 1910, at which point he decided to leave academia and enter politics.  

5. Elected governor of New Jersey in 1910, Wilson quickly gained national prominence and decided to run for president in 1912.  After a heated Democratic National Convention, Wilson won the nomination on the 46th ballot, outmaneuvering Speaker of the House Champ Clark of Missouri.  In the general election, Wilson benefited from a split in the Republican party and won the White House with just 42% of the popular vote, but a landslide in electoral votes.  

6. Wilson was one of only two Democrats who served as president between 1861 and 1933, and was the first Southerner in the White House since Andrew Johnson left office in 1869.  

7. In 1914, Wilson's wife died, making him only the third (and, to date, last) president to be widowed while in office (John Tyler and Benjamin Harrison were the others).  Wilson remarried the following year to a local widow named Edith Galt.  

8. In 1915, Wilson became the first president to attend a World Series game, throwing out the first pitch of Game 2 between the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies.  

9. Narrowly winning reelection in 1916 against a progressive Republican, Wilson led the United States into World War One the following year.  Much of his second term was spent fighting with Congress for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and America's entry into the League of Nations. Wilson had been one of the founders of the League of Nations, but Congressional Republicans blocked America's entry into the League because they feared it limited America's power to declare war independently.  
 
10. The fight over the League of Nations took its toll on Wilson's health, and for the last two years of his term, he was disabled by a series of strokes.  As there was, at that time, no clear constitutional precedent for what to do if a president became unable to perform his duties, Wilson's wife effectively led in his place.  The 25th amendment, adopted in 1967, finally addressed this issue directly.  Wilson died in 1924.    

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The 10 Best Guitar Songs

Since I've been doing these top 10 lists about music lately and getting pretty good feedback, I figured I'd keep the series going.

For this one, I am considering the best guitar songs.  By "guitar," I mean "electric guitar" - there are certainly some fantastically-intricate and incredible acoustic guitar songs out there, but you won't see them on this list (Stairway to Heaven, anyone?).  My main criteria is not just guitar solos, but the overall guitars within the song as a whole (although the solo is a big part of it).  Like my list of the 10 Best Songs of Hard Rock, I have taken into consideration how widely known a song is, because no one wants a top 10 list of songs no one has ever heard of, even if they do have kick-ass guitar parts.  Be that as it may, I have not limited myself to only those songs that get a ton of airplay.   

Also, unlike that other list, I have not limited this list to just one style of rock music.  I've considered all possibilities, from the lite rock of the 70's to the most hardcore thrash metal.  You'll notice there are no songs on this list later than 1988.  That's not because I didn't consider songs of the last 25 years.  Instead, it's simply a sad reminder of how guitar-driven music has died a slow and painful death over the last two decades.  

10. Aqualung - Jethro Tull


British prog-rock band Jethro Tull has never been a particularly popular band in the United States, but they've been around since the late 60's and have sold (according to Wikipedia) more than 60 million albums worldwide.  "Aqualung" was the title track from their 1971 album, and it showcases a kick-ass guitar riff from beginning to end, together with a perfectly executed guitar solo in the middle by perennially underrated guitarist Martin Barre.

9. Telegraph Road - Dire Straits 


"Telegraph Road" isn't a Dire Straits song you're likely to hear on the radio, but if you think you've heard the best Mark Knopfler has to dish out in songs like "Sultans of Swing" and "Money for Nothin'," you are sadly mistaken.  "Telegraph Road" is, quite simply, a masterpiece of guitar music. The guitar solo at the end is overlaid with the sounds of a thunderstorm and, if you listen creatively, the solo, itself, plays the role of the flashing lightning.  It's musical and creative brilliance and never fails to give me chills.

8. Pride and Joy - Stevie Ray Vaughan 


Stevie Ray Vaughan was the quintessential guitar musician, and it was difficult to decide which of his masterpieces should be in this list.  Honorable mentions go out to "Texas Flood" and, especially, the live version of "The Sky is Cryin'," found on his Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan compilation.  In the end, however, "Pride and Joy" makes the list because it is his most widely-known song.  It showcases Vaughan at the height of his powers and never ceases to elicit a twist of the volume knob when that tell-tale opening riff roars out of the speakers.  Perhaps no guitarist in history could make his guitar wail like Stevie Ray Vaughan.

7. Comfortably Numb - Pink Floyd 


David Gilmour is, quite simply, one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, and his guitar work doesn't get any better than his performance on "Comfortably Numb."  If this list had been strictly about guitar solos, this song would have been easily in the top 3. The solo that closes out this song is simply one of the best of all time.  The song itself, however, despite having some lead riffs, isn't heavily guitar-driven, so #7 was as high as I could place it in good conscience.

6. Bodhisattva - Steely Dan


If you love guitar music, and you've never heard this song, you should YouTube it right this instant.  It's a weird song with odd lyrics, but the guitar work is absolutely brilliant.  Walter Becker is a guitar virtuoso.

5. Do You Feel Like We Do (Live) - Peter Frampton 


When it comes to kick-ass guitar music, it doesn't get much better than Peter Frampton.  His 1976 live album is one of the best-selling live albums of all time and is by far his most successful album. Frampton must be the only artist in history who is known primarily for a live album.  In any case, "Do You Feel Like We Do (Live)" is a classic guitar-driven epic of nearly 14 minutes, including an almost 10-minute guitar solo.  The song hits its peak around the 11th minute and just explodes into a frenzy of pure guitar rapture.  It's an orgasm in music.  

4. One - Metallica 


I was introduced to this song in 1989 by a friend of mine who is now a Presbyterian minister.  He bought the cassette single while we were on a youth group trip in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and we listened to it in the church van.  I was absolutely blown away.  For me, this song is the quintessential heavy metal song.  Kirk Hammett's solos are perfectly executed and the song just kicks so much ass that it's hard to say which part I like best.  Speed metal at its finest.

3. Sweet Child O' Mine - Guns n' Roses


I love Guns n' Roses.  There has simply never been a better hard rock band than Axl, Slash, Izzy, Duff, and Stevie.  They were the climax of hard rock music.  Everything before them was leading up to them, and everything since has been a slow, steady decline.  Like Stevie Ray Vaughan above, I had a hard time choosing which song of theirs should be on this list.  "Coma," "Don't Damn Me," and "Civil War" get honorable mentions.  Also like Stevie Ray, I ultimately went with their most popular song.  "Sweet Child O' Mine" is a guitar masterpiece, from the the intro, which is one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in history, to the solo near the end, which demonstrates Slash at his creative and prodigious best.  This was the first song I ever heard by Guns n' Roses, and it's still one of my favorites.

2. Freebird - Lynyrd Skynyrd


If this list was just about guitar solos, "Freebird" would not only be #1, it would be #1 by such a enormous margin that no other song would be anywhere even remotely close to it.  But this list isn't only about guitar solos, so Freebird falls into the #2 spot.  Does anything even need to be said about this song?  If you're not aware of what an epic, timeless guitar solo Allen Collins throws down at the end of this song, you don't like guitar music.  My favorite version of this song is the 13-minute extended live version from the band's Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd collection.  Steve Gaines, who joined the band just a year or so before their fateful 1977 plane crash (in which Gaines, together with lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, died) adds a second guitar to the solo and the effect is just epic guitar euphoria.  Let's also not ignore the slide guitar work in the first part of the song by Gary Rossington.

1. 2112 - Rush


Probably a dark horse winner for many, but not for me.  You may not know much Rush music, and/or you may not like Rush, but if you are not able to recognize "2112" for the astounding, overwhelming, and utterly unmatched guitar masterpiece that it is, you don't know guitar music.  "2112" is the title track from their breakout 1976 album of the same name, and it is a brilliantly-conceived and flawlessly-arranged prog rock epic of more than 20 minutes, taking up the entire front side of the original vinyl album.  Alex Lifeson, undeniably the most underrated guitarist in rock history, weaves together an intricate tapestry of guitar artistry and brilliance, while Geddy Lee adds his trademark virtuoso bass lines, ultimately forming a song that simply represents everything you could ever want from guitar music.  "2112" is the greatest guitar song ever recorded.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The 10 Best Songs of Jimmy Buffett



Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I never heard of Jimmy Buffett.  But when my family moved in 1988 to Cincinnati, a city that has long had a love affair with him, I was very quickly introduced to the man, the music, and the myth.

I didn't take his music very seriously at first (my musical tastes at that time were almost exclusively used up by Guns n' Roses and a few other hard rock bands), but he slowly began to grow on me, particularly after his 1990 live album, "Feeding Frenzy," became a staple on the family CD player.  

By the time I graduated from high school in 1993, I had begun buying all of his back catalogue and completed it within a year or two.  Since that time, I have counted Buffett among my very favorite artists.  

After posting a list of the 10 best hard rock songs of all time, a friend of mine - who used to hear me playing Buffett nonstop through the walls of our adjoining dorm rooms in college - jokingly said he'd like to see a list of my 10 favorite Buffett songs.  I decided to take him seriously and make it happen. What follows is the result.

It's important to note that, in making this list, I did not take into consideration how popular or widely-known a given song was.  I have simply chosen the ten songs that I think demonstrate Jimmy Buffett at his very best.  

10. Livingston Saturday Night

This song first appeared on Rancho Deluxe, which was a movie soundtrack Buffett did in 1975. He then rerecorded the song (rewriting some of the lyrics to make it a bit less raunchy) and released it on his 1978 album Son of a Son of a Sailor. I've always said this was the closest Jimmy Buffett ever came to doing southern rock - and that's also why I like the song so much.

9. Tryin' to Reason With Hurricane Season

This is one of the few well-known Buffett songs that gets anywhere near my top 10.  A classic beach bum song from his best album, A1A, this was one of my first Buffett favorites.

8. L'Air de la Louisane

As the title implies, this song is sung entirely in French.  It's not an original Buffett composition, but was instead written by a singer/songwriter named Jesse Winchester, who is, apparently one of Buffett's friends.  Buffett has covered a number of his songs, and this one is easily the best.

7. School Boy Heart

From 1997's Banana Wind, this is one of Buffett's many autobiographical songs, and it has a great chorus and lyrics that have always inspired me.

I've got a school boy heart
a novelist's eye
stout sailor's legs
and a license to fly

6. Railroad Lady

This song is from Buffett's first major label album, A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, and it was later covered by Willie Nelson.  It's the only Buffett song that mentions Kentucky, but that's not why I like it.  It's a perfect example of acoustic country western music from the 1970's.

5. I Heard I Was In Town

This is a song from the mid-80's in which Buffett sings about going back to Key West after having lived there for a time in the 1970's.  As the title implies, it's an introspective look at coming back "home" after becoming famous.  This has always been the quintessential Key West song for me.

Changes have come like the storms of the season
but time here still moves slow

4. Tin Cup Chalice

One of three songs on this list from A1A, this song is quite simply the definitive beach bum song.

Give me oysters and beer
for dinner every day of the year
and I'll feel fine

3. Coast of Carolina

Easily my favorite Buffett song of the 21st century, and (obviously) one of my favorites of all time. 2004's album License to Chill wasn't a great Buffett album, but this song blew me away from practically the moment I first heard it.  In it, Buffett reminisces about his long relationship with his wife, and the lyrics have always hit home deeply with me.  If I let myself, I can actually choke up listening to this song.

From the bottom of my heart
off the coast of Carolina
after one or two false starts
I believe we've found our stride

2. Migration

This was the song that made me a Jimmy Buffett fan.  Back in the late 80's and early 1990's, I had, of course, heard all his standard hits, but when I heard this song from A1A, I realized that I really, really liked Jimmy Buffett.  Forget Margaritaville...for me, Migration is Buffett's signature song.

1. Brahma Fear

This song is sort of a dark horse winner.  It's not a widely-known Buffett song, nor is it one you hear discussed very often even among diehard Buffett fans.  He virtually never plays it in concert. It's just a plain old song buried deeply on his second album, Livin' and Dyin' in Three-Quarter Time, from 1974.  But it is, and has been for a very long time, my favorite Buffett song.  There's nothing spectacular about it, and the lyrics are typical of the kinds of songs he wrote during that era, but somehow this song just has a perfect sound, a perfect representation of acoustic, folksy, beach bum music from the 1970's that Buffett did, does, and always will do, better than anyone. In my opinion, Brahma Fear provides the best blend of all the unique elements that have made Buffett famous.  

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