Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Today's Musings and a Polite Request

How does one stay informed and involved while simultaneously not feeling riled up and helpless all the time?

I've been struggling a lot with this lately. I don't want to check out from social media and the news and current events, but I also feel upset and bothered all the time.  Even when I'm not actively thinking of the new presidential administration and its enablers in Congress and around the country, and all the horrible things they're doing, I frequently get that feeling of knowing there's something to be upset about and momentarily not knowing what it is, before suddenly remembering.

So how do I balance being an engaged and informed citizen, while also not feeling like my personal life is being affected by it? Every day I consider logging out from social media and staying away from the news, simply so I can just live and enjoy my life without worrying about "big issues." But I also know that checking out and burying your head in the sand doesn't solve anything, and in fact makes you an accomplice.

I was convicted recently by a post I saw on Twitter about this issue. It was condensed into 140 characters, but it basically said: Remember that history class you were in, or that museum you walked through, or that movie you watched which talked about some horrible historical period in the past, and you thought to yourself that if YOU had been alive during that time, YOU would've done so and so and such and such. Well, this is your historical period, and what you do now is what you would've done. 

This hit me like a ton of bricks because I have done that very thing. I've read about something or watched a movie and thought: If I had been alive during that time, I'd have been out on the streets. I'd have been writing and talking and letting everyone know about what was going on. I wouldn't have just sat idly by and watched while the world burned down around me.

What about you? Would you have buried your head in the sand? Would you have just gone along with it because there was nothing you could do? Or would you have stood up to injustice, fought corruption, and taken an active role in stopping it from happening?

Would you have ignored segregation and the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South? Would you have ignored the evils of slavery? Would you have just gone about your business with your head down in 1930s Germany or Italy? Would you have just focused on yourself and your family while Vietnam raged?

So I feel convicted about staying involved and informed - it's literally the least I can do. But I also can't stand feeling riled up and upset so much.

I ask for your advice for balancing this and thank you in advance.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Trump's First Week

The Immigration Ban

I'll spare you a diatribe about how awful this is, or an appeal to America's melting pot identity, or a sad description of crying and dying children. All that stuff is true, but you can get it elsewhere.

Instead, let me just say this: Trump and his team are not stupid. They know good and well this ban is unconstitutional and will be struck down faster than you can grab a pussy. They also knew it would create chaos at airports.

The purpose of this little exercise is twofold.

First, it's the fulfillment of a campaign promise. "I said I'd do it, and I did. Who cares if it's illegal."

Second, and far more importantly, it's the Trump administration's way of saying to the Muslim world beyond our borders: "Muslims are no longer welcome here in our Christian country." Of course the ban doesn't apply to all Muslims, but that doesn't matter. The message is loud, clear, and intentional.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Lost to some degree among all the furor of the immigration ban was Trump's official statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Notably, he failed to mention Jews. Now, no official presidential statement would accidentally forget to mention Jewish people on Holocaust Remembrance Day.  No, mention of the Jews was left out on purpose.


Simple.  It's because Trump's chief advisor, Steve Bannon formerly ran a far right news outlet that routinely printed anti-Semitic writings and advertised itself as the news source of the "alt-right," which is a trendy name for good old-fashioned right-wing extremism.

These right wing extremists love Israel, because they believe its existence is necessary for the second coming of Jesus, but they don't like Jews, particularly American Jews. And they don't like American Jews because they have a very well-established collective delusion that liberal Jews run the media and use it to spread liberal Jewish and socialist propaganda. Sound familiar?  That's because it's straight out of 1930s Nazi Germany.  So it should come as no surprise that Trump didn't mention Jews in his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement.

That someone like Steve Bannon has become the White House Chief Strategist and, as of a few days ago, a member of the National Security Council, should literally scare the shit out of you.

Some have reasonably argued that Bannon, himself, is not an anti-Semite, but has simply pandered to such people in order to stir up discontent against the establishment and transform traditional American conservatism into far-right nationalism - something akin to the far right nationalist populism of Europe. Even if that's true, the results are still the same: he is a champion of right-wing extremism and is undoubtedly the most dangerous demagogue in the Trump White House - which is saying something.

The Wall

Many conservatives have reasonably argued that protecting one's borders is a wise and fair thing to do, pointing out that many nations in Europe and elsewhere have physical barriers along their borders, requiring people to pass through checkpoints. Since most agree that illegal immigration is a problem (regardless of their views on how to solve it or how big the problem is), what's so wrong with a wall to stop illegals from coming into the country?

Several things, actually.

First of all, the cost. The Trump administration's estimate of 9 billion dollars is widely considered to be conservative (no pun intended). Of course, when you're talking about that much money, what's a few billion here and there? More than likely it will be twice that much. Either way, for a political persuasion that claims to be interested in cutting spending, throwing 20 billion at a wall in Texas is hard to justify. Sure, sure, Mexico's gonna pay for it. Right. And pigs will fly out of my ass.

Secondly, and far more importantly, is the symbolism of a 20 billion dollar border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. We all know what walls stand for - they stand for oppression and isolation and aggression. They scream a big loud KEEP OUT and they tell people WE DON'T WANT YOUR KIND HERE. Think of a mansion with a gigantic perimeter wall and an armed guard at the only gatehouse. You're poor ass isn't welcome here. That's what Trump is proposing we do to our long-time neighbor and ally, Mexico.

And it's in keeping with his stance on immigration - Muslims and Mexicans aren't welcome here (unless they're going to toe the line of right-wing populism, of course). And it all goes back to the influence of people like Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, the champion of far-right nationalism and politics.

I would much rather see the process for getting visas made quicker and easier, and then hard-working Mexican laborers wouldn't need to come here illegally. They come illegally because it takes too long to get a work visa. They need to eat now, not in six months. If it was quicker and easier to get visas, people wouldn't need to sneak in, and then voila, we wouldn't need a 20 billion dollar wall.

All in all, Trump's first week is pretty much what I expected it to be, and despite all the controversy and protests, I predict his approval rating will go up. People will see him as keeping promises and being decisive, and in many people's eyes, that's far more important than what he's actually doing and what harm it may cause. I hope I'm wrong - I hope his approval rating stays in the gutter, but I've lost all faith in the American people at this point. After all, they elected him in the first place.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Entertainer by Scott Joplin

I promised to post videos this year of my piano adventures, so here's me following through.

This is an oldie but a goodie, a popular ragtime piece from the 1910s that became widely-known after it was used as the theme song for the blockbuster 1973 movie "The Sting."

The song is in 4 sections and I learned the first one back in the day when I was in high school, but never went beyond that.

There are a few minor mistakes in this performance, but I think it gets a solid B+, which means it's good enough to post. Pardon the tiny little sliver of fat belly you can see on the lower right by my phone holster.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Beginning of an Error

Eight years ago today, I wrote a blog post entitled "The End of an Error." The title was, perhaps, not particularly original, but it expressed perfectly how I felt about the Bush administration that was leaving office that day. Despite how happy I was to see Obama entering the White House, on Inauguration Day, I was evidently more concerned with writing about what had gone before than what was to come.

In the same way that I felt January 20, 2009, was the end of an error, I feel that January 20, 2017, is the beginning of one.

Of course I feel this way: I'm a liberal, after all, who abides strongly by typically liberal political beliefs and perspectives.  No matter who it was, if a Republican was entering office today, I would undoubtedly consider it the "beginning of an error."  

But this particular beginning is even more troubling and upsetting because of who it is. Donald Trump is not a typical Republican.  He's not a Republican at all.  He's an authoritarian and oligarch whose gods are himself and money. 

He enters office with the lowest approval rating of any president-elect since such polls have been taken (which, in fairness, only goes back to the early 1990s). Real Clear Politics shows the current average of approval ratings to be 41.8%. That's remarkably low for a president-elect who hasn't even gotten into office yet; George W. Bush in 2000, despite winning a disputed election in a campaign that was widely considered to have two less-than-stellar candidates, entered office with a 59% approval rating.

I'm not one of those people who hopes Trump (or any president, for that matter) fails. Like all decent human beings - not to mention self-respecting American citizens - I want all presidents to be successful and to lead the country into prosperity and general well-being. Unlike people like Rush Limbaugh, who openly asserted in January of 2009 that he hoped Obama failed, I hope Trump succeeds. I hope the country does well under his leadership, and if it does, I will be the first to give him credit for it. I haven't forgotten when Mitch McConnell, upon assuming the mantle of Senate Majority Leader, said that his primary job as leader of the Senate was not to govern, but to ensure Obama did not get reelected (which means, of course, that he failed in his primary job). I don't support views like that. I hope Trump succeeds, and if he does succeed, I will support his bid for reelection. 

Having said that, I have no hope whatsoever of that actually taking place, and no reason, in my view, to feel anything different. As a historian, I tend to look at things like this through the lens of history, and I see nothing in historical precedent to make me think the chances of Trump succeeding are very good. 

There are two primary reasons for this: 

1. His economic policy is based on a failed policy frequently referred to over the last few decades as trickle-down economics: cut taxes for corporations and the rich so that these "prime movers" of society have more wealth with which to invest and create jobs, which will make their extra money "trickle-down" to the rest of the masses and improve everyone's life. 

This was a fine and noble theory 45 years ago when Ronald Reagan began championing it in the mid-1970s and used it as the centerpiece of his economic policy after being elected president in 1980. Unfortunately, we have known for a very long time now that it does not work. The wealthy simply get wealthier while everyone else stagnates. More money in the pockets of corporations does not make them hire more people or, especially, pay their people better. Instead, it is reinvested in growing the business to pad the pockets of their investors, or held back in savings against a future bad economy. 

There is simply no reason to suppose that this time it will finally work. That this time, Reagan's grand vision will finally come to fruition. It won't. Instead, over the next four years, the wealth gap will undoubtedly grow wider.

2. People often think that success in business will naturally equal success in the White House. Republicans, in particular, tend to abide by this belief, as evidenced by the many wealthy businessmen they have nominated for the presidency over the last century (including three of their last four nominees going back to 2000). 

Unfortunately, history shows that successful businessmen tend to make unsuccessful presidents. Prior to Donald Trump, there have been three presidents who were successful businessmen before winning the White House - two Republicans and a Democrat.

The first was Herbert Hoover, who was one of the wealthiest men of his day, earning a fortune in the mining business. He was the third Republican in a row to be elected to the White House, taking office in 1929. He, of course, presided over the Great Depression and lost in a landslide four years later to Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is widely remembered as one of the 20th century's worst presidents. 

The second was Jimmy Carter, who owned a large agricultural business in Georgia (commonly referred to by his critics as a peanut farmer, it's important to realize he was not a sunburned farmer in overalls picking peanuts, but the head of a major farming operation). He took office in 1977 and, after presiding over an economic recession, was easily defeated in 1980 by Ronald Reagan. 

The most recent was, of course, George W. Bush, who was an oil industry executive before entering the White House in 2001. Like the two businessmen-turned-presidents before him, he presided over a major economic recession and left office with the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern history. 

Learning from history has never, of course, been the forte of many conservative voters, and clearly the monsters and naive enablers who voted for Trump don't realize and/or don't care that no other businessman has been able to translate his business sense into good public policy as president. 

This is not surprising since the factors and qualities that make for successful business operation do not work when it comes to governing.  You can't run the country like a business for the very simple reason that the United States is not a business.

When you consider that all our previous experiments with businessman-as-president have failed, and when you also consider that those three previous presidents did also have governing experience as well as being successful businessmen, but still failed, while Trump has never governed anything, it leads to a very strong sense that he will fare no better than Hoover, Carter, and Bush before him. God forbid that he fare worse. 

And these historical considerations, of course, say nothing about his personality, his bluster and bloviating, his narcissism, his inability to accept criticism, his vengefulness - all qualities that make for a poor leader.

So I see no reason to be upbeat or positive about the prospects of Donald Trump's presidency. I hope he does well, but I do not expect him to. I have every reason to suppose that this is the beginning of an error, which will hopefully come to a peaceful end in four years.   

It's 12:12 pm, Barack Obama is now an ex-president, and Donald Trump has taken the oath of office. 

God help us. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

2016 Playing List

What is the 2016 Playing List, you ask? It's a new list that I plan to post every January (I know, I know, you're super excited) of the piano pieces I completed in the previous year.  As many of you know, after nearly 20 years of virtually not playing the piano at all, I finally got a piano in 2016 and have been playing my little heart out, getting reacquainted with my first musical love.

I've been pleasantly surprised at how quickly I have gotten back to a place of reasonable competence, given how long it had been since I'd played.

Once I get more comfortable (and competent) performing in front of a running video camera, I hope to start posting videos of my playing here on my blog.

For the time being, here are the pieces I completed in 2016.  Considering it wasn't until the beginning of August that I got the piano, I'm pretty pleased with this list.  A lot of them are pretty simple, but still.

I'm primarily using piano books from my college days, and it's been nice because my piano professor's notes and markings are all still there.  It's like Dr. Tilford is still teaching me, even though he's in his 80s now and living in Alabama. I had forgotten that I ever played a lot of these songs until I started flipping through the books and seeing his scratchings on various pieces.

I'm currently working on a Scott Joplin rag, the first movement of a Mozart sonata, a set of seven folk songs by Beethoven, and a Bach invention.  In addition to the songs that I'm learning at any given time, I also do regular piano exercises, using an exercise book I used with my piano teacher in high school, as well as The Virtuoso Pianist, a well-known exercise book first published in the 1800s by Charles-Louis Hanon. And, like any good pianist, I do daily scales and arpeggios.


Aug. 2016
Bagatelle in A Minor, WoO 59, “Für Elise” – Ludwig van Beethoven

I used to play this one when I was younger, though I don't believe I ever mastered the entire song (most people are familiar with the famous opening refrain, but there are two other sections to the piece too which are more difficult and typically left out of your basic 5th grade piano book). 

Minuet in G Major, WoO 10 No. 2 – Ludwig van Beethoven

Sept. 2016
Sonatina in G Major, Anh. 5 No. 1 – Ludwig van Beethoven
“Edelweiss” – Richard Rodgers, arranged for piano by Dick Averre

This one was from sheet music I bought in high school but never learned. 

Sonatina in C Major (first movement only), Op. 36 No. 1 – Muzio Clementi
Sonatina in A Minor, Op. 27 No. 11 – Dmitri Kabalevsky
Ballade in C Minor – Friedrich Burgmüller
Spinning Song, Op. 14 – Albert Elmenreich

Oct. 2016
Prelude in C Minor, Op. 28 No. 20 – Frédéric Chopin
Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 4 – Frédéric Chopin
March in D Major, BWV Anh. 122 – Johann Sebastian Bach
March in G Major, BWV Anh. 124 – Johann Sebastian Bach

I really don't like playing Bach.  I resented it in college when Dr. Tilford made me play him all the time. I just wanted to play Beethoven and Liszt. I still don't like playing Bach's stuff, but I know now how important it is for teaching your fingers how to move across the keys.  So, as with Beethoven, my favorite composer, whenever I finish a Bach piece, I immediately start another.  

Nov. 2016
“Träumerei,” Op. 15 No. 7 – Robert Schumann

I clunked my way through this one when I was younger, but never really mastered it.  It's one of my all time favorites.  A beautiful piece.  YouTube it. 

Prelude in F Major, BWV 927 No. 4 – Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonatina in F Major, Anh. 5 No. 2 – Ludwig von Beethoven
“German Song,” Op. 39 No. 17 – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Dec. 2016
“The Entertainer” – Scott Joplin

A famous ragtime piece, this one is also from a piece of sheet music that I think I bought in high school.  If memory serves, I learned to play the first section pretty well back then, but never bothered with the second, third, or fourth sections (the second section, in particular, is quite difficult).  I'm still playing this piece almost every day, to keep it clean, but I counted it as "complete" back in December. This is one of my all-time favorites. 

Prelude in C Minor, BWV 934 – Johann Sebastian Bach 

Monday, January 16, 2017

2016 Reading List

Only 8 posts on Serene Musings in 2016.  Pretty pathetic blogging by yours truly, and for that I'm sorry.  Maybe I'll be better in 2017, but no promises.

In any case, here's my reading list for last year.  A mere 25 books in 2016, largely due to the prodigious length of several of the books I read.

I am forgoing the Serene Musing Book of the Year Award this year, not because I don't want to do it, but simply because, quite frankly, I didn't feel that there were any books I read this year worthy of this prestigious award.

Seriously though, it's not that I hated everything I read, it's just that nothing I read this year really struck me as a fantastic book - as something I'd want to read again. So there will be no 2016 winner this year. Yes, Serene Musings is a bit like the Nobel Prize in Literature. It's only awarded if someone earns it.


Carrion Comfort – Dan Simmons

Another massive horror tome, this time about vampires, from the most long-winded writer who ever lived, with the possible exception of James Michener (see below). Aside from the fact that the story could have been told just as well with 500 pages instead of 1200, this was still a really good book for anyone who enjoys good character-driven horror fiction. The twist on the vampire genre in this book is that the vampires don't suck blood - instead they feed on other people's minds by mind control: forcing people to do their will.  

First Blood – David Morrell

This is the book that inspired the Rambo series of films. If you've seen the first Rambo movie, it follows the book pretty closely, except that Rambo kills a lot more people in the book than in the movie (in the movie they intentionally had him only kill one really bad cop in order to make him seem more sympathetic; in the book, it's intentionally left unclear who the actual hero is - whether Rambo or the sheriff who is intent on capturing him.) One other change is that the movie is set in the upper northwest, while the book takes place in the backwoods of eastern Kentucky. 

Crimson Shore – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

The latest installment in the Agent Pendergast series.  As always, it was solid.  

The Martian – Andy Weir

I decided to read this one after the movie starring Matt Damon came out.  I don't read a lot of science fiction, but I was drawn to this one largely because of the backstory of the author and the book itself. He initially self-published this book for Kindle through Amazon and simply advertised it on his blog (sound familiar?).  It took off and went viral and started selling a lot on Amazon. The publishing industry took notice and before long he had a New York Times bestseller in hardback and a hit movie. The book was good, although it's very, very technical - but not to the point that you can't follow what's going on. 

One Corpse Too Many – Ellis Peters

Book two in this historical mystery series starring Brother Cadfael, a crime-solving monk in the vein of Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot.  It's set in 12th century western England. 

Never Binge Again – Glenn Livingston

A self-help book about binge-eating that sadly didn't do me much good. #fat

The Fall of the Roman Empire – Peter Heather

This was another one of the "prodigious tomes" I read this year. It took me from October 2015 to March of 2016 to get through it. If you a very in-depth look at the reasons for the fall of Rome, and you DON'T want to read Edward Gibbon, this is a good place to start.  

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

I read this one in an effort to read more critically-acclaimed literary fiction (this one was  Pulitzer Prize winner).  It was okay.  A little too artsy in the writing style, which is, of course, something that high-brow literary critics love.  

The Five – Robert McCammon

This was somewhat of a departure from the norm for McCammon, who is typically a horror novelist in the vein of King or Simmons. This book centers on a struggling rock band who gets stalked by a serial killer, but it's less of a horror story and more a character study. I gave it a solid 4 stars.  

The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle

A very famous self-help novel that falls into what the old Southern Baptist Scott would have called "new age-y" stuff. It's inspiring, but ultimately sort of impractical. 

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Another book I read in an effort to read more "great novels."  This one was interesting if for no other reason than to see how Huxley got his predictions for the future right and wrong. As far as dystopian novels set in the future go, however, it doesn't hold a candle to 1984. 

Masters of the Planet – Ian Tattersall

A fantastic overview of anthropological studies on human evolution, including a survey of all the various bones and skeletons of pre-modern humans that have been found.  Very informative. 

You Look Like That Girl – Lisa Jakub

A memoir by the actress who played the oldest daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire and also the daughter of Randy Quaid's character in Independence Day. She left acting in young adulthood and teaches yoga and memoir-writing classes in Virginia now.  An interesting "inside" look at a working actor's life in Hollywood, without the glitz and glamour and gossip.  

This Naked Mind – Annie Grace

Another self-help adventure, this time on drinking responsibly. 

Chesapeake – James Michener

One of Michener's thousand page historical dramas, centered on a series of families in the Chesapeake Bay region, starting right before Europeans arrived there in the late 1500s and leading up through the modern day. 

Zachary Taylor – John S. D. Eisenhower

A short biography of one of my favorite ex-presidents. Taylor is the only person prior to He Who Shall Not Be Named to ever become president without having any political or top general military experience.  He was a general, and very successful one who was given wide acclaim for his victories in the Mexican-American war, but he was a field general, not a commanding general. That may be splitting hairs a bit, but it set him apart from all other U.S. presidents until Señor Cheeto got elected.

He died from food poisoning a year and half into his term and was the subject of speculation in the 1980s that he might have been assassinated. The speculation was rampant enough that the Kentucky state coroner agreed to disinter him from his tomb in Louisville to check fingernail and hair samples for signs of arsenic. Arsenic was found, but it was in low enough concentrations to be considered normal. The test, however, was only able to rule out arsenic as a cause of death, but no other potential poisons.  

Monk’s Hood – Ellis Peters

Book three in the Brother Cadfael series. Speaking of poisons, the murder victim in this one got poisoned with monk's hood - also known as wolf's bane - a super poisonous flower that grows throughout the northern hemisphere and occasionally kills unsuspecting flower-pickers in places like England and northern Europe. 

The Great Emergence – Phyllis Tickle

A book about the emergence of a new kind of Christianity, which the author believes (or believed - she's dead now) indicates a new reformation is taking place.  Tickle was the long-time religion editor at Publisher's Weekly.  

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain

See a trend here?  Another great work of literature I had never read until this year. 

The Ice Limit – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

This was a re-read from a book first published (and which I first read) in 2000. I re-read it in preparation for the long-awaited sequel. 

Beyond the Ice Limit – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

The aforementioned long-awaited sequel. It wasn't as good as the first book, but it was okay. 

Before Adam – Jack London

Earlier in the year, I downloaded a bunch of old Jack London novels (he of Call of the Wild and White Fang fame). This was the first one I read.  It was intriguing because it was basically set in prehistoric times. The main character is a caveman (although he's more ape-like than human) and it basically tells this guy's story. London, who was writing at the beginning of the 20th century, was inspired by new advances in the study of evolution. It was interesting to see (especially in light of the book on human evolution I had read earlier in the year) a century-old take on human evolution by a novelist. Needless to say, he got a lot of things wrong. But it's a bit like opening a time capsule. Very illuminating.  

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

And yet another great work of classic literature. 

Refuge Recovery – Noah Levine

And yet another self-help book on drinking responsibly. 

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

Another classic, but this one was a re-read. I read this originally about 20 years ago, and decided to read it again. Still the prototypical pirate adventure story.