Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten Theatrical Events of 2009

Although this was a tough year economically, it was a wonderful year in so many other ways. We ended the Bush era, my daughter embarked on the first part of her journey to adulthood by going off to college in Maryland, and I got to attend another 70 or so theatrical events of one sort or another: plays, musicals, comedy, cabaret performances, concerts. Some were simply dreadful (I support community theater, but I don't often like it), most of them were enjoyable on one level or another, but a few were truly magical. At least to me. At least on those nights.

In alphabetical order, here are the ten best things I saw this year:

"American Idiot" at Berkeley Rep, Berkeley
This punk rock tone poem -- now on its way to Broadway -- is an evocation of teen disaffection and confusion in the context of a world saturated with millions of conflicting political and media messages.

It's a bit dark and depressing, but that's rather hard to avoid when one of the key themes is “Nobody likes you. Everyone left you. They’re all out without you, having fun.” But “American Idiot” is also a brilliant, explosive, heartfelt work of art. The music is amazing and the onstage band rocks every corner of the house. The story’s a bit thin, but the show’s not about story – it’s about emotion.

"The Floating Lightbulb" at A Traveling Jewish Theater, San Francisco
The Traveling Jewish Theater has changed its name. Since they found a permanent home, it's now just The Jewish Theater. But that doesn't change the fact that they wandered into a terrific production of Woody Allen's play about a young Jewish boy who wants to be a magician. Most really talented actors don't hang around San Francisco too much, they head off to LA or New York because that's where the work is. But a few can't leave the Bay Area, and several of them were in this production.

"God of Carnage" at the Jacobs Theater, New York
"God of Carnage" is one of those shows where you rather despise the characters as people, but love them as characters because they entertain. What's great about the play by Yasmina Reza is how the constrictions of the theater help lay bare the insecurities of the characters. How it puts their bravado on display, revealing a terrible lack of courage.

Although it sounds grim, it's actually quite funny. Hard to imagine how you can milk laughs out of lines like "Every word that comes out of your mouth is destroying me!", but "God of Carnage" manages it.

Jake Johannsen at Cobb's Comedy Club, San Francisco
A lifetime ago, I tried my hand at stand-up comedy. So did Jake Johannsen. In fact, we did our first open mic night sets on the same night. I lasted about a year in comedy, while Jake has gone on to have a solid career. (In fact, his new Showtime special, "I Love You," premieres tonight.) Way back then I saw that Jake had a special talent that I lacked. And every time I've seen him on stage, he's proved me right. I don't know why he hasn't broken into the big big time. Maybe his work is just too smart and too sharp for a mass audience to really "get."

I'm not saying this because Jake and I are still friends of a sort, but because I think it's true: Jake Johannsen is the best, most inventive stand-up comedian working today.

Marilyn Maye at The Rrazz Room, San Francisco
She's a bit old-fashioned, but Marilyn Maye's show at The Rrazz Room was so warm-hearted, so honest and genuine that it swept away all my desire for novelty and hipness. From the moment she walked on stage in her Bob Mackie outfit, she did what an entertainer is supposed to do: entertain. Great songs, great stories and a love for her audience that is palpable combined to make this a very special evening.

"Next to Normal" at the Booth Theater, New York
Although "Next to Normal" is ostensibly about how a family copes with a mother who suffers from bipolar disorder with delusions, it's also about the condition of being human. It's about how we connect -- or not -- with our fellow beings. It's about what we give up in order to grow, and how we grow up by giving. It's about the fragility of love, the tenacity of biology, the frustration of not getting what you want -- and the perils inherent in getting it.

But what may be most brilliant about this show may be that it's about whatever is most important to you right now. And isn't that what makes art, art?

"Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theater, New York
In making art we attempt to expand or compress time or reality -- or both -- in order to make clearer to ourselves and others some aspect of existence. To make some part of the human condition more accessible.

The production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theater is one of those rare works of art that is scaled just right. Time and reality are expanded and compressed just the right amount in just the right ways to create an experience that is both the epitome of the theatrical experience and something I've never really felt before in a theater. The boundary between audience and players are blurred throughout - and occasionally erased almost completely.

What both director David Cromer and Thorton Wilder have succeeded in doing in this specific instance of art is to remind us of our common humanity. Grover's Corners is, in fact, our town. It is our earth, our existence. It is what we all share -- and it is both mundane and magical, ordinary and awe-inspiring. Often at the same time.

Steely Dan at The Masonic Auditorium, San Francisco
One of my favorite bands of all time, and one of the few I'd never seen perform live -- mostly because for most of their career they never performed live, preferring to concentrate their efforts in the studio. Now, more than 30 years after their initial success, they occasionally go on the road. On the night I saw them, they performed -- in order -- the entire "Royal Scam" album, which is probably my favorite Steely Dan record, then went on to play a whole other set of songs from the rest of their oeuvre. I knew all the words, danced in the aisles like a teenager and generally had a terrific time.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Intiman Theater, Seattle
A beautifully staged, beautifully acted production gave me an appreciation for this masterpiece that I'd never gotten from the movie version.

"Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them" at The Public Theatre, New York
It's not really about torture. It's about reconciliation. It's about the desire to take back your bad decisions and make things right again. But since it's written by Christopher Durang, it goes at these serious issues in a relatively absurd, outlandish, biting, and frequently brilliant fashion.

One of the main characters, Leonard, is an arch-conservative who obsessively toes all the standard lines. He's like one of the suits in a Tom Tomorrow cartoon: spouting the justifications of the Limbaugh dittoheads with such unashamed fervor that it lays bare the ridiculousness of their positions.

This is satire that cuts so cleanly that it takes a while to realize you're up to your ankles in blood.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

SUV Maestros

"We've got Tommy on jumper cables, Jules playing steering wheel, and the Amazing Latchtones on doors and windows!"

Monday, December 28, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Ten, "The Understudy"

I suppose one could do a festival of plays that take place entirely in theaters – “Noises Off, “Follies,” “Curtains,” “A Chorus Line,” “Phantom of the Opera” – I could continue. In fact, of the ten shows I saw on this trip, two (“Our Town” and “So Help Me God”) took place in theaters, and a third, “Circle Mirror Transformation” placed its action in a rehearsal studio which basically functioned as a theater.) Perhaps this plethora of titles is indicative of the navel-gazing often associated with theater types. Could it be that we are so self-absorbed and juvenile that we return again and again to the womb of the stage? Or is it just that we follow the adage to “write what you know?”

Whatever the reason, Theresa Rebeck has added another play to this canon of works -- "The Understudy," currently playing at the Laura Pels Theater as part of Roundabout Theatre Company's season.

The setup is pretty simple: Harry (a hilarious Justin Kirk) is a theater veteran, newly-hired to understudy a big movie star (Jake, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar) in a surprise Broadway hit: a lost masterpiece of Franz Kafka's. Coming from two different worlds, there's bound to be some envy, especially when Jake claims that his $2.4 million fee for acting in a recent action blockbuster isn't really all that much after you pay your agent and manager. Harry's also a little judgmental about the quality of Jake's performance. So there's bound to be some tension on the set.

This tension should ordinarily be quelled by the sure and steady hand of a stage manager, the one person on a show whose job description (in part) is to never get flustered. But Roxanne (played delectably by Julie White, whose presence in the cast was probably the main reason I selected the show) is perpetually flustered -- by her late arriving movie star, by a prop gun that goes missing, by an unseen stoner tech who keeps hitting the wrong cues, but mostly by the fact that Harry was Roxanne's fiance until he skipped town two weeks before the wedding. (Roxanne doesn't know it's Harry who has been cast because he changed his name for professional reasons, so his presence on set is a big surprise for her.) Roxanne refers to her wedding dress, still in her closet six years later, as "a wound on a hanger."

"The Understudy" has its problems, but since we're in the theater, I'm willing to suspend a bit of disbelief and just go ahead and enjoy the snarky comments and all the funny insider bits that would fly right past most people but that a savvy New York audience just eats up.

As insider-y as "The Understudy" gets -- and it's pretty darn insider-y when you're cracking wise about the perceived value of Equity cards vs. SAG cards and the mercury poisoning a real Hollywood actor used as an excuse to get out of an off-Broadway production he wasn't enjoying -- it still meets the criteria of being universal enough. "The Understudy" is about power and clout and insecurity and confidence and professionalism. You just have to look past the jargon and the private jokes and enjoy the foolishness of people pretending to be other people (pretending to be still other people) and laugh because it makes you feel good.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Nine, "This"

Do we take things too seriously? Is life all just a game with a set of rules that feel somewhat ad hoc, not to mention highly-fluid, but infractions of which are nonetheless strictly punished? Should we, as I believe I heard Bugs Bunny say once, not take life too seriously because we'll "never get out of it alive?"

This seems to me to be one of the core conundrums at the heart of Melissa James Gibson's new play, "This," now playing at Playwrights Horizon. The five characters who populate the stage are all bright, successful (at varying levels), skilled (at varying levels) and wounded. At varying levels.

Merrell and Tom and Jane and Alan all knew each other in college. Tom and Merrell got married, Jane married Roy (who appears in this show only as cremains) and Alan is presumably the same verbally-gifted, bitchy, complainy gay man he always was. Jean-Pierre is a French "Doctor without borders" that Merrell wants to set Jane up with, it being nearly a year since her husband (the aforementioned cremains) has died of an unnamed disease.

This is the sort of show that's right up my alley. It's filled with wisecracking urbane sophisticates who wax philosophic on various topics with greater or lesser degrees of irony. They indulge a little too much (which leads to an hysterical moment where the character holding the two bottles which contain all the remaining liquor asks someone to "pass the Triple Sec" and another character reaches out and lifts her elbow so the bottle in her hand comes into her view), and they talk constantly. Like I said, perfect for me.

And though I loved the show, laughed a lot and appreciated the amazing set by Louisa Thompson, and the theatricality of it all, and though I loved all the intellectual banter, I felt something was missing. Some sort of soul to the play. Maybe I just didn't like the perfectness of all the character's jobs: Merrell is a jazz singer/pianist in nightclubs, Tom an artistic cabinetmaker, Jane a published poet now teacher, Jean-Pierre is the aforementioned philanthropic man of medicine and Alan makes his living as a professional mnemonist, a man with a prodigious recall -- a skill which comes to hilarious use late in the show. Maybe it's because some of the topics discussed feel too much like the cute things a writer jots down in a notebook but didn't always seem connected to the characters.

Overall, though, I'd say "This" is worth a look.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Eight, "Hair"

I remember the cast album for "Hair" quite clearly. My oldest brother (20 years older) owned it, and when it was first out it was played with some regularity in his house, usually after a Saturday night dinner where some not insignificant amount of wine was consumed. I was 11 or so when the cast album was released, so some of it went over my head. I remember someone asking me if I liked the record, and when I said "yes" my other brother said "you like the one about fellatio?" my mother chided him. I knew some of the words in the number to which he was referring ("Sodomy"), but that wasn't among them at the time.

But this is all really beside the point, isn't it? I guess the point was that I went into this new production of "Hair" with a relative familiarity with the music. I'd also seen the cast perform during the 2009 Tony Awards, and loved it. Their performance was wild and energetic and unleashed -- and it's even more so live.

Be warned, this is not a production for children. This warning is too late for a seemingly single dad, who brought three 5-6 year olds to see the rather overt sexuality, hear the F-bomb dropped with some regularity, and hum along with the aforementioned "Sodomy": "Sodomy...fellatio...cunnilingus...pederasty." So keep anyone under 16 or so at home, but come and enjoy yourself.

Unlike last night's dreadful "Finnian's Rainbow," this revival has almost as much relevance as it ever did. When one character says "war is about the white people sending the black people to kill the yellow people to protect the land we stole from the red people," the only alteration that would be needed to make that more contemporary would be to change "yellow people" to "brown people." We're fighting an unpopular war abroad and are torn apart by political and generational divisions at home. Yet the message of "Hair" remains the same: love each other. And let the sun shine in.

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Seven, "Superior Donuts" & "Finnian's Rainbow"

"Superior Donuts"
Poor Arthur Przybyzewski. Past his mid-life crisis, he's spent his years mostly running away from things -- the draft, his wife, their child. Now, living an isolated, lonely life running the donut shop his family opened more than 60 years ago, Arthur seems to have finally stopped running. The question is, has he stopped growing?

But perhaps the biggest question people were asking with this play was whether Tracy Letts, fresh from his Tony/Pulitzer/Drama Desk award winning triumph, "August: Osage County" would be able to top that triumph. The short answer is "no," but my guess is that he wasn't even trying to. My guess is this much smaller story came to him and he decided it was what ought to be next. Unfortunately, critics and audiences can be a lot less open-minded than a playwright might hope for, and Letts has endured a lot of criticism (and half-empty houses and an early closing date) for this follow-up effort.

Much of that criticism, however, is well-founded -- though it deserves mostly to be aimed at the production and not the playwright, for Letts has created an engaging, funny play that deserves our admiration. Unfortunately, he's been let down by his director, Tina Landau, who lets the play open with a sluggish, aimless pace. The supporting cast didn't seem to be giving it their all, either, though that may be due to the fact that it was two days before Christmas, the house was half-full and the play is closing on January 3. Easy to imagine their hearts might not have been entirely into it.

"Superior Donuts" doesn't really find its balance until the appearance of Franco Wicks (the energetic and sharp Jon Michael Hill), a self-described "self-starter" who talks his way into a job and starts working on improving the surroundings, starting first with his new employer. Arthur, an aging hippie, wears his hair in a pony tail. "You know who looks good in a pony tail?" he ask Arthur. "Girls...and ponies."

"Superior Donuts" is generally described as a comedy, and it has lots of funny lines. (One of my favorites being when Arthur defends himself against a charge or racism by saying to Franco "I hired you, didn't I?" To which Franco responds, "Scoot over, Lincoln, make room on the penny!"

The drama comes primarily from the fact that Franco has a secret or two that will be revealed over the course of the play, and Arthur will have the opportunity to finally complete something difficult in his life without running away from it. That moment, which happens in the very last line of the play, brings "Superior Donuts" to a tender, touching close. I'm sorry the play's run is closing, because Letts' follow-up to "August: Osage County" deserves better.

"Finnian's Rainbow"
My main question is "why?" Why recycle this chestnut? The songs aren't that great and the story is hackneyed and outdated. Why did the marvelous Cheyenne Jackson decide this was the best move at this point in his career? But the biggest why is why, after the original ran for 723 performances, wasn't that enough?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Six, "Let Me Down Easy"

Anna Deavere Smith is a woman of many talents, chief among them listening. She's made a bit of a career finding people with interesting stories, getting them to tell her those stories, then recreating them verbatim (or nearly so) in solo performances where she will play a range of people who are linked in some way. Sometimes the linkage is their joint association with a specific event -- the Crown Heights Riot for one. In her new show, "Let Me Down Easy," now playing at the 2econd Stage Theatre, the common thread is a single word: grace. What is it? What are our lives without it? Can we earn it? Can we give it to others? Most important to it, does it increase or decrease under pressure, especially the pressure of ill health?

Smith never addresses these questions in even an oblique way. Rather she presents a series of 20 brief portraits of a wide range of individuals, from celebrities such as Lance Armstrong, Ann Richards, Lauren Hutton and Joel Siegel to an array of unknown people: doctors, patients, a musicologist, the director of a South African orphanage. Each gets skewered a bit, but not without softening the blow with her deep respect and love for each of the subjects. You get the sense she thinks virtually of them are a little bit crazy for one reason or another -- but always gives them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps in hope that people will do the same for her minor insanities.

Though things do tend to get a bit overblown from time to time (the orphanage director who tells of how she sits up with each dying child was a bit too playing the heartstrings with a 2x4 for me), this was almost entirely a wonderful, brief series of visits from a collection of characters who take the stage one at a time. The space begins in a very neutral state: just spare white-on-white furnishings. As Smith takes on -- and then sheds -- the props and items of clothing associated with each character, the stage ends up littered with the detritus of their stories.

FYI - there was no theater on day five of this trip. Hence the break in order.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Four, "Circle, Mirror, Transformation" and "Fuerzabruta"

"Circle, Mirror, Transformation"
It's either real but not true, or true but not real -- but it's not both. Although it's getting mostly great reviews and has been extended, there's a certain lack of genuineness that keeps me from getting more excited about a show that made me laugh hard many times.

The cast (especially the absolutely delightful Tracee Chimo, who gives a brilliant physical performance) is excellent, but the setup never quite gelled for me. The play takes place inside a community dance/aerobics/yoga studio in Vermont, where an acting teacher has finally begun a "creative drama" workshop for adults. Though the improv games they play during these classes are well-realized and often hysterical, I couldn't get over the fact that these four students become such excellent actors and reveal so many personal details in just six weeks of class. It began to feel like both a writerly and actorly showcase, and not a real play.

So ultimately disappointing.

Like their previous show, "De La Guarda", the creators of "Fuerzabruta" are working in a theatrical language that seems to me how an alien culture might attempt to communicate with us when there is no common language or culture or history. There's no story here, only the barest of thematic threads -- human struggle against (or perhaps dances with) forces that are far more powerful than they.

I love an intricate story more than most, but I still enjoyed every one of the 70 or so minutes of this show, because I love the kind of interactive, somewhat obtuse (but sensorily-rich) theatrical techniques director Diqui James has developed -- from the giant treadmill to the enormous acrylic pool suspended above the audience where the cast frolic as though on an outsized slip 'n slide made of really durable Saran Wrap.

As I write, I see that this is where that lack of a common language presents a hurdle. I can't adequately explain what's going on -- nor could I. Because the show isn't about explanations, it's about experiences. And you just have to experience "Fuerzabruta." Because it is undeniably magical.

Just remember that you'll be experiencing that magic on your feet: there are no seats in the performance space.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Three, "So Help Me God"

I'll confess there were times in "So Help Me God," especially near the end, that I thought Kristen Johnson might be pushing a bit too hard in her performance as a tyrannical Broadway diva, prepping a new show. That she was giving it just a bit too much throttle coming out of the corners. But when you're playing a stratospherically psychopathic narcissist, it's hard to go over the top when you keep finding a new top.

There is nothing Lily Darnley won't do to further her own interests, no matter how callously wicked or wantonly cruel that might be. But her cruelest cut of all is being in such a limited run hit. The show closes tonight. Which is apparently one of little tragedies Christmas can bring along with its joys, because Johnson was hysterical.

Friday, December 18, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day One Two, "Our Town"

I've long believed that a good definition for "art" is " scale." In making art we attempt to expand or compress time or reality -- or both -- in order to make clearer to ourselves and others some aspect of existence. To make some part of the human condition more accessible.

The production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theater is one of those rare works of art that is scaled just right. Time and reality are expanded and compressed just the right amount in just the right ways to create an experience that is both the epitome of the theatrical experience and something I've never really felt before in a theater. The boundary between audience and players are blurred throughout - and occasionally erased almost completely.

The Stage Manager, played by Jason Butler Harner, speaks directly with the audience in a natural, comfortable way. He looks to us for our opinions, even manages to cast several of the audience in the performance by handing them cards with questions to read. A cast member exiting said "Good evening, Miss Holcombe" to one audience member and "How ya doin' Stew" to another. (Or something along to those lines.) One row of seats can be said to be on stage, even though it's on the exact same level as the next row of seats behind it.

What both director David Cromer (who originated the role of the Stage Manager in this production) and Thorton Wilder have succeeded in doing in this specific instance of art is to remind us of our common humanity. Grover's Corners is, in fact, our town. It is our earth, our existence. It is what we all share -- and it is both mundane and magical, ordinary and awe-inspiring. Often at the same time.

(Regarding the odd title of this post, Day One was cancelled due to food poisoning."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Triple Zero House

An interesting story in Scientific American about how architects are designing homes that actually produce more energy than they use.

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Birth of Ca Phe Sua Da

Click here to read a bit of background on one of my favorite coffee drinks -- which I virtually never get to drink because it's almost never offered in a decaf version and it's so wildly caffeinated that I jangle like a wind chime in a typhoon for about six hours after drinking one.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Cowards of Albany

Today, the state Senate of New York -- or at least quite a few of its senators -- showed just how cowardly and self-serving American politics has become. When, after a year of lobbying and many failed attempts (which were likened by Joe Jervis of Joe.My.God to Lucy never letting Charlie Brown kick the football) to bring the issue of marriage equality to a vote, legislation finally reached the Senate floor today.

Given the political climate (the defeats in Maine, California -- and just about every place else in the country), I didn't really expect the measure to pass. The political climate is also why I shouldn't be surprised that the vote was as lopsided as it was: 38-24. In the months and weeks leading up to this vote that was on-again-off-again several times, it was thought the measure's backers might have as many as 35 votes. Although that was optimistic at best, backers thought they had a real chance at getting 32 votes, the amount needed to pass, and certainly expected to receive 30 votes, or very close to it.

But two interesting things happened when the bill hit the floor. First, only one senator, Ruben Diaz, chose to speak against the measure. (And he a Democrat, no less. Has he read the Democratic party platform?) And his primary argument was the only one opponents of marriage equality can use, since there is no logical reason to deny it -- the Bible. Second, those nearly 30 votes quickly contracted to 24 when it became clear the measure would not pass.

After all, with such a hot-button issue, why be on the side of equality and justice when it's clear most voters aren't? Forget that you're supposed to be a leader, not just a mouthpiece for any bigotry a majority of people feel comfortable with. Just dodge the civil rights issue of your time and enjoy the benefits of re-election and the perks of power. But don't expect history to treat you as kindly.

That's why the Republicans (and Democrats) who lost their chance to be on the right side of the issue didn't speak up; they know, in their heart of hearts, that they couldn't argue against equality without appearing either foolish for taking a position that defies logic, or advocating theocracy. (Something Ruben Diaz was happy to do, saying legislators ought to consult their Bibles when making legislation.)

Once the vote was complete though, the Republicans started talking. “Certainly this is an emotional issue and an important issue for many New Yorkers,” said Senator Tom Libous, the deputy Republican leader. “I just don’t think the majority care too much about it at this time because they’re out of work, they want to see the state reduce spending, and they are having a hard time making ends meet. And I don’t mean to sound callous, but that’s true.”

What? True that you sound callous, or that you are callous?

But beyond that, what does extending the rights and responsibilities of marriage to LGBT people have to do with unemployment or state spending? Nothing, of course. But LGBT people are a convenient (and relatively powerless) minority, and this issue makes for a lovely distraction from the fact that the economy still sucks for working people. So the right latches on to this issue as a way to show they are still in touch with the feelings of the common man. And when it comes time to justify their votes, they don't talk about the issue itself, but use popular opinion as an excuse for why they can't do the right thing. Sickening.

But as posters plastered throughout London during the Blitz said, "Keep Calm and Carry On." LGBT Americans are in a somewhat similar position as Londoners in the early days of WWII. We face the attacks of a powerful, evil (though they think they are doing the right thing) enemy, but if we keep our heads down, go about our business and keep pointing out what the right thing really is, the enemy will one day be driven back.

We lost today. Equality will ultimately be victorious.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

He's as Mad as Hell...

...and he's not going to take it anymore.

Once again, Andrew Sullivan taps the anger and passion I feel about the direction of our country. In one his posts today, Andrew sets out a manifesto for what he cannot accept in a political movement; in this case, why he can't get behind today's "conservative" movement, even though he has always identified as a conservative.

Money quote:

"I cannot support a movement which has no real respect for the institutions of government and is prepared to use any tactic and any means to fight political warfare rather than conduct a political conversation.

I cannot support a movement that sees permanent war as compatible with liberal democratic norms and limited government.

I cannot support a movement that criminalizes private behavior in the war on drugs."

Read it all.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Amazing card manipulations

What if Dimitri Arleri had decided to be a surgeon instead?

Just Hang On, Baby

Click on this link for a fascinating story about a Chicago options trader whose hobby is fishing for large, fast, ferocious tuna -- from his kayak.

Money quote:

"It never occurred to the authorities that someone might be crazy enough to want to catch a bluefin while sitting in what amounts to a floating plastic chair and enjoying what Melville called a “Nantucket sleigh ride.”"

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Callous? Stupid? You decide.

A couple of days ago a bill landed on the desk of Rhode Island governor Don Carcieri which would add "domestic partners" to the list of people who are allowed to make funeral arrangements for a person. Carcieri vetoed the bill. His reason? According to CBS News it was that the legislation represents a "disturbing trend" of the incremental erosion of heterosexual marriage.

If you've read any accounts or heard stories of gay partners in long-term relationships being denied the right to even attend their partner's funeral, let alone make the arrangements for the service, you know how painful and humiliating it can be. You can read a few in the comments section on the post regarding this story at Joe Jervis's blog. Here is just one: "Shortly after my partner was killed in a traffic accident, his mother had his remains moved to another location and refused to tell me where they took him. They actually dug him up and when I went to the cemetery, I found an empty grave. She said that she didn't want me "desecrating" his grave by putting flowers on it. Earlier, I was allowed to attend the funeral, but was told that the burial was for "family only." We had lived together for six years."

There are many stories like this. And it seems callous of Carcieri to deny committed couples the right to make funeral arrangements for each other. Given that the bill was passed out of the legislature with a veto proof 64-1 margin, it also seems sort of politically brain-dead.

However, Carcieri did make one point that I sort of agree with. The bill established criteria for what constitutes a "domestic partnership" and Carcieri believes those criteria are sort of vague. They include living together at least a year and being "financially interdependent," such as owning a home together or sharing a credit card. Carcieri believes a "one year time period is not a sufficient duration to establish a serious bond between two individuals...[relative to] sensitive personal traditions and issues regarding funeral arrangements."

Here's where I agree (and where this starts to sound like "The View"). Say your daughter has shacked up with a guy and he talked her into adding his name to her credit card. If your daughter died and the live-in BF wanted to have her body cremated in defiance of your wishes and religious tradition, I have a hard time seeing why his wishes should take precedence over those of her family.

Clearly it's not that I don't want people in committed relationships to be able to make funeral arrangements for each other (or inherit without taxation, visit each other in the hospital, etc.), it's just that when it comes to important issues such as these, that's what marriage is for. If you want those rights, you need to take on the responsibilities, as well. It's just another reason why we need marriage equality.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Thought Experiment

Here's the question for today. Let's say someone has told you that tomorrow morning you will dropped at a randomly chosen place on one of Earth's land masses and you have to make your way back home. You get to wear whatever you choose in terms of clothing, but you only get to take one other man-made thing with you. What would you choose? A knife or other weapon, perhaps? A satellite phone? A Visa card? Other than those three, I can't think of anything else that would be a reasonable choice.

The chances are good you are going to end up in a very inhospitable environment. About a third of the land masses are either mountain ranges, deserts or capped with ice. Even if you hit the two-thirds that is mostly habitable, odds are you aren't going to be anywhere near a city or town of any size. So what item would be most useful to you?

The satellite phone is a fine option because you can immediately call for help. But if you don't know where you are, how can you tell people how to find you? (Though I suppose the authorities could probably track the phone signal to you, if you could convince the authorities it wasn't a prank before the battery ran out.)

A weapon is also useful, especially if you end up dropped in an inhospitable environment where you might face wild animals or even human threats. I suppose you could also use the weapon to obtain money or goods through the threat of force, but you would also likely run into people with bigger and more weapons who might thwart this plan of action.

I think a strong case can be made that a Visa card could be the winner. It may be of little use in a jungle or in a desert, but once you got yourself to almost any sort of settlement, it would be a widely-recognized symbol that you would be able to pay for the assistance you are requesting and would be greeted with more warmth (and likely equal respect) than you would brandishing a weapon.

Anyone else have any ideas?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Gettin' Jiggy with Aaron Burr

Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of "In The Heights," 2008 Tony winner for Best Musical, performing at the first White House poetry jam. Beautiful.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Legalize it, tax it, regulate it

Here is an article from today's New York Times.

One quote jumped out at me: "In a memorandum on Oct. 19 outlining the medical marijuana guidelines, Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden said marijuana was “a dangerous drug, and the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime,” adding that “no state can authorize violations of federal law.”"

Dangerous? By what criteria? It's impossible to overdose on, there's no risk of physical addiction, the risks that come from smoking it are minimal and even those can be mitigated by ingesting it or vaporizing it. By every measure it is much safer than alcohol and far safer than tobacco.

Think of the resources we waste pursuing, arresting and incarcerating those involved in the growing, selling and use of marijuana. Then think of the revenue boost we would get from taxing it.

Please, please, please can't we approach public policy issues with common sense and rationality and not baseless fear-mongering?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Nagging Thoughts

Recently, the Research Digest Blog asked a group of respected psychologists and neurological researchers to describe one thing about themselves that - despite all their knowledge and training - they still don't understand. Some answers (they had to be 150 words or less) are fascinating, some just egoistical. But they are all interesting in their own way.

Here's what Stephen Rose had to say: "A lifetime studying the neurobiology of learning and memory, and I still wonder about St Augustine’s questions 1600 years ago: "How does my brain/mind encompass vast regions of space and time, abstract thoughts and numbers, false propositions" - or for that matter the memory of my fourth birthday party or what I had for breakfast yesterday. Meantime, I am embarrassed by the naivete of my fellow neuroscientists who mechanically collapse mind into brain, or claim to be able to localise within that mass of tissue: equity, empathy, romantic love... "You’re nothing but a bunch of neurons" claimed Francis Crick, locating consciousness in the anterior cingulate gyrus. Lombroso redux indeed! As the mind is wider than the brain, to misquote Emily Dickinson, what other sciences/knowledges do we need to bring to bear to understand ourselves?"

Thursday, September 17, 2009

To Hell with Bipartisanship

As ABC News said today: "If Sen. Max Baucus' bill -- with its smaller price tag, no employer mandate, and no public option -- doesn't draw at least a few Republicans, what will?"

For the past several months, the President and Democrats have been reaching out across the aisle, looking for some thread of bipartisanship as we struggle with how to fix a healthcare system that is so broken that nearly 2/3 of all personal bankruptcies are due to medical expenses -- and 80% of those bankruptcies are from people who actually had health insurance.

As much as I've hoped Congress would work to find common ground through common sense solutions, that's apparently not going to happen. (I guess I don't have the influence I ought to.) That's why it's time to end the bickering -- in a partisan way. The American people elected a Democratic president and put strong Democrat majorities into both houses of Congress. I can't speak for the other 127 million voters, but I cast my vote in the hope of getting something done, and putting this country back on a progressive track after eight years regressive, macho posturing and pandering to base instincts.

So I say to hell with bipartisanship. Screw the Republicans. They had their chance. Americans voted for Obama and the Democrats because we wanted change. If we'd wanted to remain beholden to special interests and old ideas we would have voted for John McCain and the Republicans. We didn't. So if the Republicans refuse to come along, leave 'em behind. Vote for a solution that works for America, not one that works for the Republican minority.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"American Idiot" at Berkeley Rep

I can’t really say I ever went through a “punk” phase. In 1978, during my junior year of college, when the Sex Pistols were on their first U.S. tour, my roommate and I ripped up a couple of t-shirts, wrote slightly rough, provocative words on them (“bite” is the only one I remember today), spiked our hair and manipulated safety pins to look like they were piercing our cheeks. Then we walked around campus for an afternoon and enjoyed the stares – this was BYU, after all!

Though the punk sensibility never really fit me (I’m just not that nihilistic), I – like most teenagers – identified with the sense of angst and rage at a larger world of which you’re not yet truly a full participant. I liked the Sex Pistols (in small doses), loved The Clash (still do), but found my own way of dealing with the anger and anxiety of youth.

It is that sense of angst and aimlessness and limited options that provides the backbone for the new musical version of Green Day’s mega-platinum, Grammy-winning punk rock opera “American Idiot” that is currently in previews at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater.

“Opera” may be a misnomer in this case. The show is more of a punk rock tone poem in that there is really very little story going on here, but rather an evocation of teen disaffection and confusion in the context of a world saturated with millions of conflicting political and media messages.

“American Idiot” centers around Jesus of Suburbia, a young man who hangs out in the 7-11 parking lot with his friends before he and his two best buds Will and Tunny go their separate ways: Jesus heads to the big city, Will ends up an Army grunt in Iraq and Tunny stays home with his knocked-up girlfriend. (Or maybe it’s Tunny who goes to Iraq, I wasn’t really sure which one was which.)

All three of these young men spend far too much time in basements and on worn-out, Levitz-level furniture, parked in front of TV sets, taking in the endless stream of media – that is represented for us on a towering set covered with propaganda from multiple generations and pockmarked with 20 or so flatscreens that display a variety of video and animations throughout the show.

Somewhere inside them, these three boys must have dreams – but we never get to learn what they are. In “Rent” and “Spring Awakening” – the two shows most closely related to “American Idiot”, the longings of disaffected youth are spoken. They want to create art, or get laid, or break free from their parents. Here the main characters’ dreams – if indeed they have any – are kept from us. We know those dreams are there because we can see the disappointment and anger they feel at not achieving them, and in the realization that they have no discernible means of achieving them.

If any dream at all is voiced, it’s in the very first line of the show: “Don’t wanna be an American idiot!” That’s the extent of their aspiration – to not be a mindless drone in a world run by giant corporations and heartless, terror-producing governments. Jesus, Will and Tunny don’t know what they want to be, they just know what they don't want to be.

If this all sounds a bit dark and depressing, it is. Sort of. It’s rather hard not to be when one of the key themes of a show is “Nobody likes you. Everyone left you. They’re all out without you, having fun.” But “American Idiot” is also a brilliant, explosive, heartfelt work of art that – if you can handle volume – you really ought to see. The music is amazing and the onstage band rocks every corner of the house. The story’s a bit thin, but the show’s not about story – it’s about emotion.

I have only two quibbles with the show. First is with the set design. The screen placements aren’t quite haphazard, but they’re not linear, either, and the hanging car seems out of place. The whole thing is a bit derivative of U2’s amazing ZooTV tour, yet it lacks the chaotic energy that made that environment so compelling.

Second quibble is the cast. Mostly excellent, but if this production ends up on Broadway – as I expect it will – they might want to consider recasting some of the ensemble and perhaps even John Gallagher, Jr. as Jesus of Suburbia. I loved him in “Spring Awakening,” but for some reason he didn’t always connect with me in this role. One part that should not be recast is Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy. From the moment he appears on stage, he commands your attention. When this gets to Broadway, look for a Tony nod for him.

Quibbles aside, if you’re anything like the audience last night at Berkeley Rep, you’ll love “American Idiot.” The standing ovation was almost immediate. And with good reason. For a production that is still in early previews, “American Idiot” is polished, shining with a grungy glamour and working hard to shake everyone out their anxiety-ridden stupors, whether the cause is teenage angst or the middle-age realization that maybe all your dreams aren't going to come true. But that’s OK. After all, happiness lies not in getting what you want, but wanting what you have. And what you have in “American Idiot” is the most interesting American musical to come along since, well, “Spring Awakening.”

Saturday, September 05, 2009

It's All Bullshit

Wine competitions, that is.

Back at Work -- for Today

Since I began this blog I've had periods where I wrote several posts a day -- as well as periods where I went as long as a week without writing.

However, it's now been more than two weeks since I last posted. I don't know if any of my nine regular readers are still out there, but I figured you deserved an explanation for my absence.

Facebook must be part of it. I now have another outlet for interesting links and (brief) half-baked ideas. Facebook is easy and fun and several dozen of my friends and family are part of my Facebook community.

Priorities factor into the situation, as well. I've had a big proposal I was working on, plus another smaller project; they received most of my attention.

But as I reflect on it, I think the biggest reason I haven't been posting is also the biggest reason I should be posting: the increasing political polarity that is happening in America.

In one of my earliest posts I said: "I can’t help believing that most Americans don’t feel represented by politicians who become more and more entrenched in their partisanship with each passing day. I simply refuse to believe that most Americans aren’t disgusted by the posturing and vitriol and name-calling being passed off by talk radio and cable news pundits as the "national debate.""

Unfortunately, in the 3-1/2 years since I wrote that, nothing has changed. We have a new president, but no truly new agenda. As was ever the case in politics, promises seem to be there to be broken. Congress continues to focus on differences, with the right wing pulling even harder to the right and the left allowing themselves to be pulled. There's movement, but the two sides never seem to get closer to each other. Or to us.

Bottom line, the political scene is depressing as hell. And I don't know what my little, lightly-read blog can do to help (and I still don't like to post unless I have something at least semi-interesting to say), so I keep quiet. For now.

NOTE: the photo is of the trail from the fourth green to the fifth tee at my favorite local golf course, and is the first photo I took with my new digital camera.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Choose Your Battles

Drug abuse is an awful thing. I can't imagine there is an American family that hasn't been wounded by an addiction of one or more of its members to one or more substances. Kind aunts racked with cigarette-caused lung cancer. Adorable nephews seized by the death grip of methamphetamine. Fathers neglecting their families while lost in alcohol-induced stupors. Fortunes blown on cocaine, futures surrendered to heroin.

Nicotine and alcohol are and will remain legal, regardless of the dangers they pose. Given the addictive nature and inherent dangers of heroin and cocaine, it's hard to imagine any sort of push to legalize their production and distribution.

But marijuana? By all scientific measures, it's far safer than either cigarettes or alcohol. One can become emotionally dependent on pot, but there is absolutely zero risk of physical dependence. There are no withdrawal symptoms even if a daily user one day simply stopped.

But the people who like it, like it. And there are millions of them, all across the country. They like getting a little buzz on after work or before going to a movie or having a delicious meal or making love. Some use it to treat nausea or insomnia or arthritis -- and it works for them. So there is demand for it. Lots and lots of demand.

This comes to mind in thinking about Barack Obama's recent statement during his visit to Mexico, when he said, "the United States will also meet its responsibilities by continuing our efforts to reduce the demand for drugs..." Sorry. Not gonna happen. You can't reduce demand. People like the way marijuana makes them feel. Just like the way other people like the way a couple of shots of Jameson or a long drag off a Camel Light makes them feel. I mean, it's nice to imagine you could convince some people they'd be better off not smoking or drinking or toking, but demand comes from a place deep inside people that government simply can't get to.

So if you can't reduce demand for a substance, even when that substance can have negative effects (especially when used habitually or to excess), what do you do? We tried banning alcohol, interdicting it, making criminals out of people who were just after a bit of relaxation or reduced inhibition -- not to mention allowing real criminals to get easy access to some real money by supplying the in-demand contraband to willing buyers.

You can educate people on the dangers of use and abuse. Cigarettes hold no interest to me, partly because of the cancer risk, but partly because the four times I've used tobacco, the nicotine high never did anything for me. Other than make me dizzy. I wouldn't go near crystal meth. Or heroin. I ingest caffeine only occasionally, partly because it makes it hard to fall asleep if I have it after about 11:00 a.m. and partly because I don't like having to have a cup of coffee to get started in the morning. I don't like that sense of being dependent.

But not everyone is as easily educated as I. So let's agree then that meth, heroin and cocaine are the big three bad boys of the drug world, the substances we think are so dangerous we can't let anyone use them. Problem is, the demand hasn't gone away. People who need heroin or meth or coke really need them.

Problem is, the people who like their pot (and get it from Mexican sources who also trade in the harder stuff) are partially funding the efforts of drug traffickers to evade the law. The millions that come in from mostly harmless pot can be used to buy planes to smuggle heroin and guns to protect the shipments (or kill off rival drug lords).

So why not legalize marijuana and pull the money rug out from under them? That's the thesis of a thoughtful letter from one of Andrew Sullivan's readers. Money quote:

"Mexican organized crime would be devastated if we could run marijuana through legal channels. They make most of their money from pot. Not only that, but they use their vast distribution networks for marijuana to move their other drugs. More marijuana is consumed in this country than all other illegal drugs combined. The black market for illegal drugs is mostly a black market for marijuana. All the drugs can be found in this black market though, with most of them coming from the same organizations up the line. When we legalize marijuana we're going to take millions of participants out of the black market for illegal drugs. This will make it harder for these Mexican DTOs to get their cocaine, meth and heroin and whatever else they are selling out to the public. If we have "pot stores" like liquor stores, these pot stores will be no more likely to sell all these other illegal drugs than liquor stores. The black market for illegal drugs and organizations like these Mexican drug trafficking organizations will shrink down to something much smaller and easier to contain."

If we're going to continue to have a war on drugs, let's at least fight the right enemy.

Look Out Below!

There are thousands of large objects -- asteroids, mostly -- that could one day collide with Earth with enough impact to render our dear blue sphere inhabitable to a demanding species such as ours. Fortunately, space is large and can contain thousands of objects quite safely for quite a long time. About 500,000 years or so. On average, that's about the amount of time between catastrophic impacts, like the one that may have turned the dinosaurs into the extinction cliche they have become.

NASA, however, has been trying to keep an eye on them for us. For the past years, they have been watching for and cataloging as many of the larger objects as they could. In fact, they are closing in on identifying at least 90% of all objects in near-Earth orbits that are larger than a kilometer across. If one of those hits the Earth -- anywhere -- humanity's lights will be turned out permanently. The agency was planning to catalog 90% of smaller objects, too, those that are a minimum of 140 meters across. Though much smaller, they could still leave a nasty mark.

Unfortunately, budget cuts have meant this goal will likely not be met. Which means one morning we could wake up to find a giant rock hurtling toward us.

I'm all for watching out, but if we see one coming, can we really do anything about it? NASA has a plan to try and deflect such an object, if it can be detected early enough, but do we really have the capability to turn a giant asteroid from its course? You can find a link to NASA's deflection plan here.

Here's the Cliff Notes: "Unless there are decades of warning time, hazardous NEOs (those are Near-Earth Objects) larger than a few hundred meters in diameter may require large energies to deflect or fragment. In these cases, nuclear explosions, either stand-off or surface blasts, might provide a suitable response. For the far more numerous objects that are smaller than a few hundred meters in diameter, and provided there is a sufficient warning time, a kinetic energy (KE) impactor spacecraft might be sufficient to deflect the hazardous NEO so that it would miss the Earth at the time of a predicted impact."

Key word in both those instances: might.

So wear a hat.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

These are Real People We're Talking About

Whenever people get caught up in the abstract rejection of marriage equality -- almost always with religious "justification" (if the haters can put "marriage" in quotes when referring to my relationship...) -- I think it's important to remind them that the denial of equal civil rights has real consequences on actual human beings. Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal brought that home once again with a great piece yesterday, in which he details the struggles of his gay brother and the brother's partner of 30 years when one of them was hospitalized with a serious infection.

Money quote:

"Having just been told, at 3 a.m., that his partner of three decades might die within hours, Mike Brittenback was told something else: Before rushing to Bill's side, he needed to collect and bring with him documents proving his medical power of attorney. This indignity, unheard-of in the world of heterosexual marriage, is a commonplace of American gay life.

Frantic, Mike tore through the house but could not find the papers. He would need to retrieve them from a safe-deposit box. Which was at a bank. Which did not open until 9 a.m."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Target of Terror

While there have been plenty (far too many, in fact) instances of gay-bashing in this world, this is the first incident which I've heard of that feels like what we normally think of as "terrorism."

At the Outgames, currently taking place in Copenhagen, two bombs were thrown onto the running track at the stadium, injuring one runner. Earlier, three men were beaten on the streets of Copenhagen after the opening ceremonies. The hate, the hate, the hate -- what does it accomplish?

An Affirmation of Life

Reflections on the momentous achievement (despite the ultimate defeat) of Tom Watson in this year's Open Championship by Tom Friedman. Money quote:

"Watson has unique golfing skills, but if you are a baby boomer you could not help but look at him and say something you would never say about Tiger or Kobe: “He’s my age; he’s my build; he’s my height; and he even had his hip replaced like me. If he can do that, maybe I can do something like that, too.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Answer the question, congressman (woman)!

It's a simple question, yet they avoid it. Hard not to get fed up with politicians, isn't it?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Africa Unite!

With the rest of the world.

The completion of a new submarine fiber optic cable will give Kenya and several other East African countries faster, more widespread, less expensive access to the Internet. Which means some huge opportunities for people in those countries to more effectively participate in the global economy. Which seems like a good thing. One of these days, when you call United Airlines, instead of getting someone in Bangalore, you might end up talking to Mombasa.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


Labels get a bad rap. Yes, in some instances they can be abused when people allow stereotypes to affect their judgment of individuals based on attributes shared by a broader group. But when they are accurate (and used judiciously), they can communicate a lot of information very efficiently.

This thought comes to me as I apply for an online golf handicap and am asked to choose what sort of golfer I am from the following list:

High Handicapper
Bogey Golf
Low Handicapper
Teaching Pro
Touring Pro

Those are labels that work. Each is just about the right amount of information to determine how good a golfer someone is, and therefore how comfortable you might feel playing a round with them.

I'd quibble about the Teaching Pro and Touring Pro categories. I understand why the service would want that information, but it spoils the climb from least-skilled to most-skilled. At least the inclusion of Teaching Pro does, since I've known several teaching pros who are no longer scratch golfers. Give the pros a different box to click.

Now it was time to label myself. I was tempted at first to select "Mid-80s" for my skill level, but only for a moment until checking "Bogey Golf." I may have had a few rounds in the mid-80s, but I'm a much more reliable 88 or 92 still.

Then it got worse. They wanted to know my personality. But for this far more complex labeling task I was offered only four options:


Which is why the choice was much tougher. I'm definitely competitive. (Oy, am I compeititive.) Certainly not passive. Playful? Yes, but I don't want people to think I'm frivolous. Focused? On golf, yes. In general? Well, I'm not called "ADD boy" by one who knows me well for nothing. Competitive it was, though I worry some might read "competitive" as "jerk who yells at himself, throws clubs and plays head games with you".

As labels, that meager collection doesn't tell you much. How much harder is it to choose 30 or so traits and let people choose three to describe themselves?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Naked Truth About Air Safety

Air New Zealand has made the best safety video ever. It's not just the breezy approach to an ordinarily stuffy's those uniforms. (That came in a can.)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Can He Be Trusted?

Earlier this evening, 250 or so leaders of the LGBT movement had the opportunity to speak with President Obama about his administration's lack of movement of several issues of important to LGBT people. this is one of the reports coming out of the meeting, which was held in the East Room, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

Obama apparently mollified the attending leaders, who cheered his encouraging words: "I know that many in this room don't believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that. It's not for me to tell you to be patient any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African-Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half-century ago."

But he went ahead and asked for patience anyway. Even though for people like Lt. Daniel Choi and Lt. Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, it's almost already too late.

Soon, he tells us. Soon we will get what the Constitution guarantees us. Wait just a little while longer. He wants, he says, to make sure that change (as he put it when speaking of overturning DADT) "is administered in a practical way and a way that takes over the long term."

I'll give him some more room. After all, Ronald Reagan wouldn't even say the word "gay," and today Obama asked some of us to stop by for cocktails.

I just want to know, how long is soon?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A little something...

...from my former neighbor, Robert Hass, courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. 18 or so years ago I lived in Inverness, California, a hamlet on Tomales Bay of rather remarkable natural beauty. (That's not the house in the photo above, but it gives you some idea of the loveliness of the region.) We rented the house, but the small cabin on the property (that had once been the garage) was rented separately to Robert Hass and his wife Brenda Hillman, both poets. Bob would go on to become the United States' poet laureate. They lived and taught in Berkeley (still do), but they came to Inverness on the weekends to write and relax and hike. I remember Bob's reaction upon meeting my daughter, then an infant: "she looks like a little Buddha."

Anyway, click the link. Bob's a very interesting guy.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bring 'em On!

According to a new Pew poll, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are the most popular figures in the Republican Party. A dual-bill in 2012? We can only hope.

We Need MORE Like Him

Lt. Victor Fehrenbach, being ousted from the Air Force because of his sexuality. But click the play button and hear what he has to say -- and what some of his current and former squadron mates have to say.

How can Obama let DADT continue?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

This is the first time The Rational Feast has not included a headline for a post. I just can't find the words to sum up k. d. lang in this clip.

There are voices I've heard both live and recorded and not felt that one outshone the other. Bono. Cher. Even Springsteen. Though his live shows were amazing, it wasn't because of his voice. It was his energy and storytelling and musicianship and the amazing E Street Band. The voice was fine, but it didn't jump out in comparison to the recorded version.

But some voices, when you're in the same room with them, even if the singer is amplified, have something about them that hits an ineffable "wow" space for me. k. d. lang is one. Van Morrison is another, especially in a small venue. But it's k. d. that just annihilates me. I mean, listen to her on this. The control and precision -- linked with a real sense of abandon and freedom...well, I'm out of words.

Good for him!

Apparently a San Francsico-based photographer who was a volunteer on the playground build that Michelle Obama visited as part of her west coast trip had the chance to have a few words with her about the need to repeal DOMA. You can read the whole thing here, but the upshot is that he told her how important it is to get rid of DOMA and the First Lady said she agreed and said it's going to get done.

Let's not forget...

...that at the core of the problem in Iran is the fact that the "Supreme Leader" derives his power not from a mandate of the masses, but from his supposed connection to, or understanding of, the wishes of an invisible superbeing. This is simply no way to run a government. Over at Slate, Michael Lind agrees. Read what he has to say.

Money quote: "Replacing a Muslim monarch like the shah of Iran with an "Islamic republic" is merely replacing a more autocratic with a more populist form of theocratic tyranny. Liberal democracy is sometimes defined as "majority rule with minority rights," but that is misleading. If a religious majority rules, not on the basis of secular reason, using arguments that can convince nonbelievers as well as believers, but on the basis of supernatural dogma, then you simply have a form of religious tyranny with a multitude of small religious tyrants."

Friday, June 19, 2009

From Inside Iran

Click here for an interesting interview with an anonymous photojournalist working inside Iran.

Money quote: "Landline to landline is still ok, but when people are out in the street then is useless. I can say the most effective way of communication at the moment is "word of mouth", people keep talking in the streets, they pass the messages and the info to each other and then one person tell 10 friends and then it goes on and on. The amazing part is even if there are changes happening last minute people still manage to pass the info!!"

What Exactly is Going On in the Toll House?

Is eating raw cookie dough a gay thing? I know I'd rather have chocolate chip cookie dough than any chocolate chip cookie I ever had. And my ex-mother-in-law's icebox cookie dough? I think I could live on it.

But is it somehow gay? I ask this, because two of the biggest gay blogs, Joe.My.God and Dan Savage's SLOG both have items about a recall of Nestle's Toll House Cookie Dough due to E.coli.

What up?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Lovely Tribute

No golf fan should miss this link to a segment Charlie Rose did with Jim Nantz and Jaime Diaz, talking mostly about the U.S. Open. Rose dedicates the segment to Nantz's father, who passed last year, and Nantz relates a touching story about watching last year's Open, in the hospital, holding his father's hand. When Tiger made the putt on the 72nd hole to force the playoff, Nantz thought it a blessing that he would be able to spend one more day with his father, doing something they both loved.

Watch it. I'll embed a link if it becomes available.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

So Much for Advocacy, 2

In the Tony Award-winning play "The God of Carnage" (spoiler alert!), the character played by James Gandolfini releases his daughter's pet hamster into the street because the noise from the rodent's wheel was disturbing his son's sleep. Of course he tells the daughter a lie -- the cage must have been left open, he claims, and the animal must now be better off, playing in a woodland paradise. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the character lied to the hamster itself: "You're going to be so happy with your other animal friends. It must be lonely for you in this cage."

I bring this up because I feel a bit like that hamster. Or the daughter. Or both. Either way, I was lied to. Obama made lots of promises to gay Americans (some of the best don't come until 2:55 in)...

...but so far, he's failed to live up to any of them. Then he went beyond just failing to take action, allowing his Department of Justice to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the most ridiculous, reactionary way possible. The brief the DOJ filed in response to a suit by a California couple used arguments that sounded like something a graduate of Jerry Falwell's madrassa (as Dan Savage put it) would come up with: "There's no inequality of marriage rights, any man can marry a woman. And vice versa." "It's too expensive to extend rights to gay folks." "Homosexuality is like incest." (I've worded those a bit more bluntly than in the actual brief, but trust me, those are the core sentiments.)

So you can imagine how I feel like that poor, lied-to hamster. Told that good things are coming -- then kicked to the curb and abandoned to harsh elements and predators. The DOJ's brief in this case contains some of the most despicable anti-gay rhetoric imaginable.

Amid all the gloom across the gay blogosphere (I'm not the only one who feels betrayed), there are a few lights who are looking hard for a silver lining.

Laurence Tribe, the noted legal scholar, believe the specific case challenging DOMA's constitutionality (the case in which the DOJ filed this ridiculous brief) is the wrong case and hopes it goes away quickly: "As someone who wants to see DOMA dismantled and invalidated, I would love it if this ninth circuit case would evaporate into the ether. Even though I personally believe that DOMA is unconstitutional, I think that this particular lawsuit is very vulnerable; it’s not anywhere near as strong as the one that was brought in the federal district court in Massachusetts...the [Smelt] lawsuit in the central district of basically a bet-the-farm lawsuit that almost dares a conservative Supreme Court to slap it down."

Dale Carpenter, writing at the Volokh Conspiracy states that "For lots of reasons, gay-marriage advocacy groups would like to see this case go away, but go away without damage to the substantive constitutional case against DOMA. A dismissal on jurisdictional grounds would nicely suit that purpose, and that seems to me the most likely outcome."

However, he also goes on to say that "the DOJ brief goes further than it needs to go at this point in the case by addressing the merits of the constitutional issues in the case," and calls out a few specific tidbits in the brief, such as the fact that it is "identical in form to the defense of Texas's Homosexual Conduct law in Lawrence v. Texas: a law banning only gay sex doesn't discriminate against gays because it equally forbids homosexuals and heterosexuals to have homosexual sex and because it equally allows homosexuals and heterosexuals to have heterosexual sex. This sort of formalism has incited howls of laughter over the years when made by religious conservatives. Now it's the official constitutional position of the Obama administration."

Some are claiming that some of the arguments are so ridiculous that it's just another example of Obama being cagey, presenting a case that's likely to be dismissed because of faulty logic.

Over at, they are telling folks to "calm down": "by insisting that such measures come out of Congress he covers his ass, and also ensures that he doesn’t end up weak and ineffectual like Clinton became when he was forced to sign the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell “compromise.” That’s politics, folks. Can he push Congress to repeal DODT or DoMA? Absolutely, and he should, and we should pressure him to do so. But this lawsuit was not that time."

Some of this may be true. It may also be true that the administration is obliged to defend its laws. My thought is the administration's first duty ought to be to the Consitution.

This one isn't dead by a long shot. But Obama has dealt the gay community a deeply wounding blow, and it will not be soon forgotten - though it could be healed if the man gets his act together and makes good on all those promises.

Friday, June 12, 2009

So Much for Advocacy

I can understand President Obama not actively working for full equality for GLBT Americans (OK, I can't really, but I'll give him some leeway given what's currently on his plate. But does he have to actively fight against our rights? And with such stupid "logic"?: "If [a State] were to permit homosexuals to marry, these marital benefits would, absent some legislative response, presumably have to be made available to homosexual couples and surviving spouses of homosexual marriages on the same terms as they are now available to opposite-sex married couples and spouses. To deny federal recognition to same-sex marriages will thus preserve scarce government resources, surely a legitimate government purpose."

So we can grant equality only when it doesn't cost anything?

This is beyond despicable.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Timing is Everything

Last night I went to a meeting sponsored by Spectrum, Marin County's GLBT center. Spectrum does some terrific work and Paula Pilecki, the executive director, seems to be doing a great job leading the organization.

The meeting last night was to give an update on what's happening in the marriage equality battle and to discuss what the next steps might be on the road to achieving full civil equality. As you may or may not know, lots of GLBT activists are looking to leverage the momentum created by the extension of marriage equality by courts and legislatures in Iowa, Maine, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire, and get a repeal of Prop 8 on the ballot in November 2010.

While I understand the impatience (if anyone understands impatience, it's me), 2010 is just too soon. Marriage equality is a complex political issue, but at it's core, it's a generational issue. Old folks, raised in a world where closet doors were mostly hammered shut and the few gay folks who dared to sneak out were subject to criminal prosecution, don't like it. Don't see the need for it. And nothing is going to convince them otherwise. (Read here about former family friends who voted "yes" on 8.) On the other hand, people under the age of 30 or so are overwhelmingly in favor of full civil marriage equality. They don't even know why there's a question.

Unfortunately, by 2010, not enough of the intransigent old folks will have died, and not enough teenagers will enter the voting ranks.

So if we're smart, we'll wait. Until 2014, or 2016, when we can almost assuredly repeal Proposition 8.

Attorney Dale Carpenter put it better than I. Money quote:

"The problem is that losing has consequences beyond the immediate loss. Initiatives -- from gathering the needed signatures to running an effective campaign to winning -- require a huge investment of money, people, and time. Such resources are finite. The $60 million or more that will be spent in 2010 could go to other things, like state and congressional elections or fighting a possible SSM repeal (Maine? Iowa?) or amendment ban in another state. Those volunteers and organizers could be doing other productive things with their time. And losing in 2010, especially if the margin is greater than in 2008, will be deflating. It will harm morale. It will scare off legislators elsewhere. And it will be taken (incorrectly) as a sign that the tide is beginning to turn against SSM, with numerous political consequences in the short term."

Monday, June 01, 2009

Risk-Reward Scenarios

I'm not a good enough golfer to always appreciate many of the subtleties of course design, but I've played a few that have taught me that one key element is the balance between risk and reward. At the 18th at Indian Valley, if you can pull off a long fade, you can be 180-190 yards from the green, a difficult but doable distance. Eagle is a possibility. If you can hit a high drive 250 yards, all carry, you can have a wedge in your hand and greatly increase that possibility. However, failing at the first brings out of bounds into play (a stroke-and-distance penalty), failing at the second guarantees it.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work that way in the corporate world, where risk and reward often seem to be only loosely related.

This thought is brought to me by the peril faced by the town of Cissna Park, Illinois because GM will not renew its contract with the local Chevy dealer due to bankruptcy. (If you'd said that sentence to my father 20 years ago and told him it would be due to the bankruptcy of General Motors, not the dealer...well, let's just say I now truly understand when people say they are glad someone didn't live to see something because it would have killed him. The headline "GM Bankrupt" would probably not have literally killed my father, but it would have shaken him deeply. Deeply enough that I'm grateful seeing such news was something Dad never had to experience.)

The blame for the failure of the American car industry is wide.

I suppose one could say people who even bought a Malibu (or a Neon) just because it was American-made, though they knew deep inside it was of inferior quality to a Camry or a Civic, must shoulder a little of the blame. After all, their purchases sent the wrong message to upper management. It's not that Detroit made (or that Cissna Park sold) such bad cars, it's that Japanese and European companies sold cars that were so much better. Buying less-good cars just encouraged GM and Chrysler to keep making less-good cars.

You could blame workers, I suppose. I'm sure they made mistakes. But when one remembers that American workers build Hondas and Toyotas, too, it's hard to say this is a problem with American workers.

I suppose you could blame the dealer for his fate. We've known for a long time that oil is running out. Why didn't he chuck the business his grandfather had started and sign on with Honda when they came on the scene? I remember those early Accords and Civics -- they were better than anything Detroit was producing. So why didn't the folks at Rust (irony alert) Chevrolet see the writing on the wall? Don't they share some small bit of responsibility for their fate?

Perhaps. But perhaps some people are paying too high a price for failure, given their level of responsibility for said failure.

And I think it's fair to say less responsibility for the demise of Rust Chevrolet lies with the Rust family (which has been affiliated with Chevrolet for 94 years!) than with the top management of GM.

They're the ones, after all, who guided the company to its current state, a task for which they were well rewarded. The GM CEO, Rick Waggoner pulled down $15.7 million in compensation in 2007.

But what risk does he face to justify such a rich reward -- especially when compared to that received by workers? (Even well-paid union workers.)

The board entrusted Waggoner (and all his predecessors) with making the right decisions to ensure the continued health and profitability of General Motors. They failed. But Waggoner and other GM execs -- even if they lose their jobs -- will not face the sort of deprivation that could face the families of those who work not just for Rust Chevrolet, but for the workers who won't be hired to do street repair because the town can't afford it because Rust Chevrolet represented 20% of their tax revenue might.

I'm not saying top-level execs don't deserve higher compensation -- they do. But they do because what they do is of such importance. If they set the wrong course...well, we see what happens. Unfortunately, it is the company and its employees who carry the burden of this risk. Doesn't it make sense that if CEOs feel they deserve compensation that is so out of balance with that of line workers, that they also ought to assume more risk? He's been paid a salary that is ample enough to provide the sort of cushion that can keep him cozy for the rest of his life. A far cozier cushion than the vast majority of GM employees will be able to rest upon.

I'm not sure what the additional risk CEOs ought to face when they lead their companies to financial ruin (having to live on nothing but an assembly-line workers pension?), but it seems to me the ratio between it and the reward CEOs get for their efforts is enormously out of balance. Either they have to face more daunting consequences of failure, or their salaries get pulled back to more human dimensions.