The Answer Guy Online

Providing information to unwitting victims on a "don't-need-to-know" basis since 1974.

Sunday, June 30, 2002

You just occurred to me. If I'm going to go by the name "Answer Guy," I should probably answer someone's questions rather than spending 100% of this blog going on and on about whatever I feel like talking about. I haven't answered anyone's questions yet. Mostly because I haven't given anyone an opportunity to ask questions. Well, I'm ready to try to answer someone's question, hopefully in an entertaining fashion. So if you have any question anyone wants me to answer in an entertaining fashion,now is the time to ask me. Hopefully, dear readers, I won't bore everyone else to death.

Well, I decided to keep a Diary for an hour of listening to the local classic rock radio station, with which I have a love-hate relationship. I was going to start at the stroke of midnight, but I’m starting this at 11:45 because, well, it’s my blog and I feel like it. Mostly, I don’t really want to wait until midnight. So there. I’m also going to cheat and change typos and add some links and some extraneous info about each song. Eventually. Bear with me, dear readers.

11:45 “Hey You,” Pink Floyd (1979)
At 11:45 we’re near the tail end of this tune, one of the underrated tracks from “The Wall.” It spoke to me as much as any song during my adolescence. “The Wall” as an album telling a story can be a bit incoherent, but what makes it a masterpiece is the presence of evocative, to-the-point individual songs like this one. It’s pure Roger Waters of course without much David Gilmour, and while most of the best Floyd bears the imprimatur of both, this tune is a classic. And to think I was dreading turning to this station. Interesting fact – “The Wall” was the first CD I ever bought.

11:46 Station ID break.

“Highway Star” Deep Purple (1973)
Wow! It’s been ages since I heard this one! Ian Gillian can sing, can’t he? I’m playing air guitar in my boxer briefs. This is just the sort of payoff I was hoping for when embarking on this project. Damn, that is one kickass, blistering, got-to-be-from-the-70s guitar solo from Richie Blackmore. Complete with the organ. Wish I had a car and an open road right now. Oh, yeah, two kickass, blistering, got-to-be-from the 70s guitar solos. I may need to get my hands on a used copy of “Machine Head.” And a drum ending I love. Damn it, I really do love classic rock.

DJ Talking. Damn it…that means commercials. Wonder if there will be any ads for Enzyte. Oh. DJ just explained that this is an “all 70s weekend.” Hmm..guess that means this won’t be representative. Although I’ll have the fun of figuring out if the DJ messes up and plays a non-70s tune.

11:52 Car dealer ad.
11:53 Ad for that Showtime show “The Wire.”
11:53 Autozone commercial.
11:54 Mitsubishi ad. I hate this guy’s voice, and it’s everywhere. Another ad with disclaimers – I think I can talk fast enough to be the disclaimer guy in these radio ads.
11:55 Ad for Makes fun of legalese in contracts, as it should.
11:56 Another car ad, this one for Ford Certified Pre-Owned Cars.
11:56 What is this commercial? Ah. Country Time Lemonade. Worked, this ad did. I’m going to get some lemonade.
11:56 Dodge ad. More disclaimers.
11:57 Station break.
11:58 Ad for Clorox.
11:58 Another station break. Oooh…here comes the music.

11:58 “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” T-Rex (1973)
Ah, the sneering vocals of the late and lamented Marc Bolan. They play this one a lot but no other T-Rex sneaks into their catalog, not even with the band’s increased visibility thanks to “20th Century Boy” being on car ads on TV. I’d love to hear “Jeepster” about now, just for the part when Bolan sings “Girl, I’m just a vampire for your love-ove – and I’m GOING TO SUCK YA!” near the end of the song. Hee hee. I do like this song though and am not really sick of it despite having it in my CD collection (bought something called “Guitar Rock” from Time-Life back in high school that had this on there – I am curious why this is considered a classic “guitar” song – since there’s not that much noticeable guitars on this. This is a really spare, short solo for the 70s.)

12:02 Another station ID. In fact, I don’t feel like typing every time they mention that it’s an all-70s weekend since they seem to be doing so for every song. So just assume there’s blabbering between every song since this DJ doesn’t know how to handle song-to-song transitions or the station has a new policy of identifying itself between every song.

12:03 AM “Silver Springs,” Fleetwood Mac (1976)
Once again, WARW complies with an obscure Congressional mandate to play one Fleetwood Mac song every hour. This is the original B-side version, rather than the live one from “The Dance” that was recorded a few years back. This Stevie Nicks tune dates from some time in the 70s, but I don’t remember when off the top of my head. I am curious why this song is titled “Silver Springs” when he only uses the term in the singular in the lyrics “You could be my silver spring…” The chorus/coda makes this song – it’s simple and repeated enough that you will be singing along with it by the end. Or at least I will. But those lines “I’ll follow you down ‘til the sound of my voice will haunt you/ you’ll never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you” is kind of a creepy thought, isn’t it? J Hmm…nice slide guitar solo by whomever.

12:07 “I Saw The Light,” Todd Rundgren (1972)
Why does Rundgren sound so much like Carole King on this tune? Catchy as hell though despite being pretty insubstantial. Rundgren in fact admits in interviews that he’s bored with songs like this since they’re kinda tossed off and is vaguely frustrated that fans pay much more attention to his pop-oriented numbers than the obscure art-rock he’s somewhat more proud of making. I think Rundgren’s pop material puts him in the Guilty Pleasure Hall of Fame along with the likes of Burt Bachrach.

12:10 “Black Water” Doobie Brothers (1975)
Another song I am vaguely ashamed I really like. At one level, it’s funny to hear a bunch of stoned Los Angelenos try to evoke New Orleans. But I’m still singing along – but glad no one can hear me since I lost the range for this one long ago. I like the acoustic guitar picking – you don’t hear people do that much. Sing along. You know you know the words – at least in the coda “I’d like to hear some funky Dixieland / pretty mama come and take me by the hand” (repeated ad infinitem)

12:15 “Give Me Love, Give Me Peace On Earth,” George Harrison (1973)
Wow, haven’t heard this in a while. It’s still sad to listen to George sing, especially when he pleas for “peace on earth’ in times like this one. He’s channeling Dylan here – that piano bit in the bridge rips off “I Want You.” Glad he didn’t get sued over that one. Nice solo – classic George Harrison. Maybe George and John Entwistle are jamming in the afterlife together. J
Interesting bit of trivia – both the last two songs reached #1 in the Billboard singles charts back in the day.

12:18 Station ID – another reminder

12:18 “Rock and Roll all Nite,” Kiss (live version)
This is the live version, presumably from the original Alive album. Killer riff, which Kiss had their share, catchy as the days are long. You almost have to tap your feet during the drum breakdowns. The crowd is loving it too. Back from those pre-Eminem days when Kiss was really dangerous and demonic and all that stuff they once said about them. And this version has a solo and an ending – all anthems worth their salt really should. They corrected the error of not having either on the original studio version. And it’s a good ending too – the crowd loves it. J

12:22 “Dream Weaver” Gary Wright (1974)
In other words. A medley of Gary Wright’s greatest hit. Another perennial fave of WARW. This is kinda wimpy, and yet it still somehow works as a song it’s OK for rock fans to like. Maybe that’s because of “Wayne’s World,” which is also the reason I actually a own a copy of this song (Columbia House sent me the soundtrack once, and I was too lazy to return it, and still have it to this day. Go figure.) Those spacey synths would of course get him laughed off the radio nowadays – I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. Wow, this ending drags.

12:26 Another damn station ID.
12:27 Ad for a local car dealership.
12:27 Mitsubishi ad. I really hate this voice. I wish I could change the station.
12:28 An ad encouraging locals to spend a night at the Pentagon City Ritz Carlton. *shrug* Hmm…can I get the Marv Albert Suite?
12:29 Commerical for Dodge. Come on, where are the interesting ads?
12:30 Another commercial. I think that’s J. Peterman from “Seinfeld.” But I’m unsure. Ah, it’s for Starbucks – took ‘em long enough to say what this ad was far.
12:31 Ad for a Mercedes dealership.
12:32 Jiffy Lube ad. I’m starting to get the idea that their target audience is suburbanites. Nearly all these commercials involve cars. I don’t own a car and have no plans to buy one. Not to mention that the Starbucks ad suggested visiting the South Riding location, which I think would be a $75 cab ride from here.
12:33 Another car dealership ad.
12:34 Station ID. Here comes the music…

12:34 “Captain Jack” Billy Joel (1972)
Hmm..this one’s over 7 minutes long. Maybe the DJ’s going to the john. I will always associate this song with Hillary Clinton, since someone accidentally played it at a campaign rally instead of “New York State of Mind.” Very funny considering this is probably the single worst song in the Billy Joel catalog for a political campaign event, its subject matter involving masturbation, suicide, recreational marijuana use, and whatever “Captain Jack” is (Whiskey? Heroin? Cocaine?) that’s supposed to “get you high tonight.” The line “just a little push and you’ll be smiling” suggests he’s talking smack here, but that’s just my guess. And nose picking. Heh. Wow, what a downer this tune is – must be part of why I developed a like for Joel as a teenager – not all his songs are airy happy-pop. Just most of the ones from after he bagged Christie Brinkley. He was still a penniless, anonymous lounge singer in L.A. when he wrote this one.

12:41 “Dream On” (1972)
The power ballad that begat all other power ballads, often imitated but never duplicated. And it still holds up damn well to this day too. Steven Tyler sings this perfectly, and I understand he still does it live perfectly. One of Aerosmith’s first songs, it only became a major hit after “Toys in the Attic” broke two years later. They love this one at this station too, but not as much as Boston does, since they are probably the band New Englanders are most proud of providing for the world (as opposed to having to apologize for the likes of New Kids on the Block.)

12:45 “Domino” (1971)
Ah, Van Morrison. The Irish sure do have soul, don’t they? I play this when I get stuck in traffic since it’s hard to have road rage when Van’s singing and his band is playing. What a great groove this chorus has. And no one makes repeated utterances of “on the radio” sound so appetizing.

12:49 Stop plugging the damn station!
12:49 Dodge ad.
12:50 Bad fake-reggae jingle for something. Oh, it’s for Subway. I think I’d rather clean toilets in bus terminals than sing this jingle for a living.
12:51 Here’s that Mitusbishi guy – AGAIN. Grrrr….
12:52 Ad for music store – sounds like a good sale, if I wanted to buy any instruments right now.
12:53 Mercedes dealership. Where are all the ads for “male enhancement” products? (I don’t need them, mind you, I just want something interesting to write about. Throw me a bone here, people!)
12:54 Dentistry ad. Which reminds me that it’s been a while since I saw a dentist. Sedation dentistry. This way they can violate me.
12:55 PSA Recruitment ad for Coast Guard.
12:56 Teaser for upcoming “7 Song Superset”
12:56 Another car dealership ad.
12:57 Station break.

12:57 “Peace of Mind” Boston (1976)
First Aerosmith, now Boston. Just like being back home. How does Brad Delp sing this high? “I don’t care if I get behind/ people living in competition / all I want is to have my peace of mind.” I can identify with that a bit, although peace of mind in and of itself doesn’t put food on the table, sadly. For me this has always been kind of a blah song. That false ending thing would be cool if the damn song weren’t too long as it was. And it doesn’t even have a proper ending. it’s 1 AM, the time I said I’d stop. I want to finish with something I really like, so the next time I get to write about something cool I’ll sign off.

1:02 “Song Remains The Same” Led Zeppelin (1973)
Been a while since I heard this. This station, like the rest of the classic-rock universe, is always big on Zep though they don’t dig this one out too often. Nice guitar work as usual by Page, getting lots and lots of solo space here. Nice fills by the rhythm section too. Second consecutive song that has some insanely high-register singing, this time by Robert Plant, stretching his range more than usual. He sounds like he hit the helium in the studio on this one, doesn’t he? Wow, that’s now three solos – Jimmy’s having fun, isn’t he?

1:08 “Logical Song” Supertramp (1979)
OK..I know I’m supposed to be a fountain of useless information. So how come I don’t know whether Supertramp has two lead singers or whether that’s the same guy doing the low voices as the high ones? This one of course features the high voice. I like these lyrics – they speak to me since sometimes I feel like I’d be better if law school were able to completely neuter my conscience and be more “acceptable / presentable / a vegetable” and so forth.

1:12 “Doo doo doo (Heartbreaker)” Rolling Stones (1973)
A half-forgotten Stones number. The lyrics make some sort of attempt at a political protest song about people dying in New York City in the 70s. Nice horns on the later choruses, and a tasteful quick guitar solo. The horns make the song, really. Enough to almost not notice this is almost four minutes on unchanging one riff/chord pattern.

1:16 “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor Doctor),” Robert Palmer (1979)
Once upon a time, before the made-up chicks and the videos, Robert Palmer was a respectable artist who put out quality stuff. My mom owns most of his 70s catalog, and strikes me as sad that the more airheaded and insubstantial his material got, the more records he sold. One way of summing it up – early in his career he made records with Little Feat, late in his career he made records with two guys from Duran Duran. When he was on, a great blue-eyed soul singer. This particular tune is, again, really catchy, an easy bar band cover tune, a crowd pleaser. Not an all-time classic but succeeds on its own terms. (Note: This is the original version, not the remixed one with the louder drums that Palmer put out in the late 80s.)

1:19 “Who Are You,” The Who (1978)
Wondering when The Who was going to be played. With the Entwistle death I figured it had to be a matter of time. I can’t believe they use this song to sell Gateway computers now. It’s about a wild night out Pete Townshend had when he met some members of the Sex Pistols. It’s one of the few times that an old-school classic rock song drops an F-bomb. Twice. But still there is a sadness here – it was The Who’s last great song, one of the last songs Keith Moon worked on before passing away (and probably the only song on the album where Keith sounded like the real Keith Moon, as if he knew this would be his swan song and he needed to go out with a bang) and for some reason the odd bridge brings a more somber mood to the thing. (Note: They cut out the F-bombs. Oh, well.) Now I get to find out if they play the whole song or the 45 version that’s a minute shorter. Hmm….the unabridged version, with the third verse and everything.

1:26 “Second Hand News” Fleetwood Mac (1976)
Hmmm…less than 90 minutes ago, they played Fleetwood Mac. This kinda-dull Lindsay Buckingham number opens the “Rumors” album for some reason. (I think any of “Go Your Own Way,” “Don’t Stop,” or “The Chain” would have made for a better album opener myself.) This “bow-bow-bow” stuff is kind of annoying. Not redeemed by the closing guitar solo, since they fade it out. Shouldn’t have followed the Who with this.

Commericals. Another car dealership ad. I give up. I actually had some fun doing this – will have to try again sometime.

Well, that's all for now, dear readers....

Friday, June 28, 2002

My new project is something I might need some help with, dear readers.

I am working on an extensive blog project known as "The Sports Misery Index." It attempts to measure the sports misery that each city is suffering through, past and present (though weighted heavily towards the present.) I'm counting lots of factors - recent titles, long-suffering franchises, whether a city sticks by their sports teams no matter what, etc.

But since I am not intimately familiar with the travails of various sports fans in many other cities, I'm asking for input on this project.

If you think your town's sports fans suffer, well, I'd like to know about it. Are there any references than can make people violent, the way that "Bill Buckner" or "Game 6" will for Bostonians or "Scott Norwood" or "Music City Miracle" will for Buffalonians? Do you support your teams through thick and thin, especially if there are more lean years than fat ones?

Last night I found out that another member of The Who passed away, bassist John Entwistle. So I had to write about it. After all, The Who were the first of the “classic rock” bands I ever really got into, more so than the Stones or Pink Floyd or the Beatles.

The Who was at its core four guys making as much noise as they possibly could, and they could make as much appealing noise in their day as anyone. As if that weren’t enough, they put together ambitious concept albums, churned out catchy psychedelic-flavored power pop, and waxed some of the most potent and enduring rock anthems of all time. Even their ballads had an undeniable energy. Their live performances were top-shelf by all accounts, whether or not anyone smashed any guitars to bits – another Who trademark - during them. It says something, I think, that when the punk rock movement hit Britain in 1977, The Who were perhaps the only remaining “dinosaur” band from the 1960s British Invasion whose legacy was not diminished or attacked, even though the band was in their waning years at the time.

There may be bands with more influence on today’s artists, bands with more record sales and hit singles, bands with more radio play, and bands with more devoted fans in rock history, but no band epitomized the concept of the rock n’ roll band better than The Who.

Pete Townshend was not a guitar god like a Hendrix or a Clapton, but he produced among the richest catalog of riffs in rock history in both quantity and quality. His lyrics were infused with a sensitivity and honesty that gave the music a depth. As his songwriting vision grew broader, he was the chief inventor of the “rock opera” (which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your perspective) as epitomized by the 1969 album “Tommy” and the less-known but in many ways superior “Quadrophenia” in 1973. His delicate falsetto voice provided a counterpoint to the macho swagger of Roger Daltrey’s bellowing lead vocals. Townshend’s later solo work may not have been of the same uniform quality, but his solo catalog has hits (“Let My Love Open the Door”) and under-appreciate gems (“Slit Skirts”) galore.

Roger Daltrey’s powerful vocal chords, rough tenor, and aggressive postures and on-stage struts set the pattern for other hard-rock artists. He and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant are the yardstick by which swaggering frontmen are measured. He has been responsible for of the most dramatic moments in rock history, most notably the monumental screams near the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Love, Reign O’er Me.”

Never did you fail to notice the drumming of Keith Moon, who didn’t so much play his drum kit as attack it. Yet somehow, the chaos of his full-frontal assaults were the rhythms that drove the band. Instead of merely being a backbeat, it was arguably the most important defining characteristic of the band’s music. Which makes it a terrible shame that he died in 1978, and was probably a mistake for The Who to continue as a working band beyond his death.

And now, at the age of 57, bassist John Entwistle, perhaps the least appreciated and least celebrated member of The Who, has left this realm. He was a terrific bass player, arguably the band’s best technical practitioner (in the band’s early years, he was the only one who knew how to read sheet music) and rhythmic center. And sometimes he himself took center stage with his tongue-in-cheek singing and songwriting (“Boris The Spider,” “My Wife”) or carved out a space in the spotlight for himself with his bass work, either solos in such songs as “My Generation” and “The Real Me” or with his terrific background work, such as on “Pinball Wizard.” Rest in peace, John Alec Entwistle. You will be missed.

Well, dear readers, glad I got that off my chest. There will be lots of The Who on my stereo this weekend.

Thursday, June 27, 2002

Hmm..I have to thank the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit today, since I had been suffering from a bout of writers’ block the past few days, as I am sure you can tell. Yesterday, in a 2-1 decision in U.S. v. Newdow, the Court found the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The plaintiff, an atheist parent and a pro se litigant, was able to convince two of the three judge panel that a California school district’s requiring the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance is an infringement on his right to religious education of his daughter.

I don’t deny that the decision has a certain logic to it. As someone who is not religious, and as someone who gets annoyed at the efforts of the religious majority to shove their beliefs down everyone else’s throat at every opportunity, I have to say at one level I admire the willingness of Judges Alfred Goodwin and Stephen Reinhardt to make what they had to know would be an extremely unpopular decision. (In fact the U.S. Senate passed a resolution 99-0 against the decision shortly after it was handed down, with, of all people, Jesse Helms absent from the vote.)

The reason we have unelected federal judges in the first place is so that they aren’t threatened with losing their jobs every time they make a politically unpopular decision. The political branches of government had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into supporting federal government steps to end state-mandated segregation in schools and public facilities, and efforts by states to prevent non-white individuals from voting.

But unpopular judicial opinions still have a price – they undermine public confidence in the judicial system, they inspire politicians to rail against judges or, worse, to attempt something concrete to undermine judicial independence. (For instance, see the infamous “court packing” scheme of Franklin Roosevelt, which failed on its own terms but could be said to have had the effect of curtailing judicial efforts to undermine New Deal legislation.) The current efforts by the Bush Administration to circumvent the judiciary entirely in the War of Terrorism has to be considered a consequence of many of the defendants’-rights decisions of the courts in the last 50 years. Sometimes such decisions are worth the struggle (few would argue that it wasn’t worth it to undo the so-called “Jim Crow” laws, for instance) and sometimes they aren’t. It’s not a perfect system, but judges aren’t perfect either.

There is, I am sure, are some disingenuous commentary by conservatives out there, in the wake of this decision. On the one hand, this is supposedly de minimis because it is not coercive in nature, doesn’t endorse any particular sect or even any particular religion (though at least implies a meaning towards monotheistic religion) and is two quickly glossed over words in a run-on sentence. On the other hand, most of these commentators consistently support efforts to push school prayer or mandatory “moments of silence” in homeroom and organized prayer at football games and graduation ceremonies and other such things based on the premise that they designed to accomplish something, namely instill a sense of morality in students. Which is, of course, is exactly the sort of government-sponsored “Establishment” of religion that the First Amendment was intended to prohibit.

The other argument that the Pledge’s words are de minimis comes from the idea that rote repetition of religious words strip them of their meaning, an endorsement of which can be found in several cases, defending the Supreme Court invocation “God save this honorable court.” Although if that’s true, wouldn’t it follow that it would be better for religion to not have its words diluted by rote repetition in the public sphere? Wouldn’t this fit perfectly with the fact that separation of church and state has been as good for church as it has been for state? No other industrialized country bothers as much to guard against a co-mingling of church and state, and yet no other industrialized country has the rate of religious observance that the U.S. does.

Does this Pledge constitute improper coercion in favor of religion? For a personal standpoint, I’ve never been crazy about the Pledge, or “loyalty oaths” in general. (But I’ll save that for another article.)

The words “under God” were added to the Pledge in 1954, during the height of the Cold War, where the legislative history suggests that its sponsors hoped to draw a parallel between the God-fearing Americans and the Godless Communists of the Soviet Union. Which, to be strictly technical about it, means the plaintiffs have a point insofar as the purpose of those words was to indicate and endorse some religious belief, however vague. This legislative purpose is of the sort the Establishment Clause disallows.

I hesitate to call any government-sponsored utterance that could be construed as endorsing religious belief de minimis, but if there is such a thing, the words in the Pledge would have to fall in that category. It’s two words out of thirty-one – one would think a real effort to impose religion on schoolchildren would involve something more than a couple of mumbled words in homeroom. The plaintiff in this case was not threatened with punishment for refusing to recite the Pledge or otherwise compelled to recite the Pledge or any portion thereof; that sort of policy would have been unconstitutional, under the Supreme Court case of West Virginia vs. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943). And of course, the Establishment Clause has also never been held to require the removal of all references to the Almighty from the public sphere. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be “In God We Trust” on currency, for instance. (Parenthetically, I would have to think that there were atheist teachers, or teachers from a sect like Jehovah’s Witnesses, that would find reciting the name of God in a loyalty oath to be uncomfortable.)

Even assuming that it would be, all things being equal, a good idea to purge anything that anyone could interpret as a government-sponsored endorsement of religion from the public sphere, the “under God” is more a Cold War relic at this point than anything else. I just can’t imagine the (unlikely) potential payoff of having a couple of words shaved off the Pledge of Allegiance is worth all the efforts it would take and the opposition it would inspire.

In short, I do wonder why, of all the real and potential fights the two judges here could have picked on this issue, they picked this one. Not only is it a sure loser politically, it’s almost certainly going to be reversed at the en banc level (i.e. all twenty-odd judges on the Ninth Circuit review the case on appeal) or at the Supreme Court level. The Seventh Circuit has ruled the opposite way in a similar case, and my guess is that the Court at some point will invoke the “In God We Trust” on the currency, the prayer “God save this Court, etc.” made at the Supreme Court, and other such things, and reverse this panel.

Worse yet from the perspective of fellow arch-liberals, it gets supporters of the religious right all worked up. The Robertsons and Falwells of the world – not to mention the White House and Congressional Republicans - will have some new paragraphs in their fund raising letters that will no doubt spur new contributions. A decision like this can only lead to more efforts, and possibly some successful ones, to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms, require Bible Study classes in public schools, mandate the teaching of creationism or “Intelligent Design” or whatever they’re calling it now in high school science classes, and other things that constitute a far bigger affront to children who are not religious than this Pledge ever could. Not to mention brand new efforts to divert public funds to support religious proselytizing in other arenas. Or even a Constitutional amendment that would allow the government to promote religious belief.

To my fellow liberal-types, I suggest a little less sweating of the small stuff and a little more outrage on the big stuff where it counts. Religious conservatives at this very moment are making efforts to inhibit potentially life-saving medical research, which if successful would not stop the technology entirely but would force the biotech industry to conduct its research overseas. They are making efforts to deny gays and other sexual minorities basic civil rights. Thanks to them, it is now the position of the federal government that educators should only teach people to not have sex before marriage, which considering the median American marriage age is 26, is a policy that fails the “laugh test” and fails it badly. Thanks to them, the United States is siding against all other industrialized nations – and with virtually no one else, save the worst of the theocracies of the Islamic world - when it comes to world population policies. These are things worth being outraged about.

So, dear readers, this is why when I first heard of this decision, rather than jumping for joy, I slapped my forehead. I’m sure there will be more on this topic later.

Monday, June 24, 2002

Getting personal again, just to warn you.

I assumed growing up that all children dreamed big dreams the way I did. I used to wonder what it was like to know that an ordinary life was all you were ever going to live. Now it seems as if an “ordinary” life is itself a grandiose aspiration for me. When did my dreams get so small? When did just surviving become the goal?

I know that life it what happens to you while you make plans. But I barely make plans these days, since it seems that no plans I ever make seem to even come close to working out. Instead of planning for career advancement and retirement the way many of my peers are presumably doing, I’m just trying to get through a month at a time.

In college, but especially in law school, I vaguely felt the drafts from doors closing around me. I didn’t worry about it too much at the time, but now I am struggling to find an open door I might take to something resembling a sustainable living, let alone a personally fulfilling or financially rewarding life.

It was a short-term relief to admit to myself that the wife, house in the suburbs with the picket fence and the big back yard, and the 2.5 children wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to be responsible for anyone’s material well being, other than my own. Although this quickly gave way to the realization that I might be emotionally on my own for the rest of my life in a way that a man with a family usually isn’t. Perhaps even worse, I might not be able to pay my own bills.

Every job I apply has often been followed by some mini-daydream about what would happen if I were to work there. As my expectations have been adjusted ever downward in the last few years, the dreams have become ever so modest. Lately they’ve been embarrassingly modest. I don’t even want to talk to my law school, college, or even high school classmates. I don’t want them to know just how small my life is, or just how small and constricting my dreams have become. (And yet I’m broadcasting this to the web. Go figure. Like I said, my mind works in strange ways.)

At some point in my life, I recall changing my life to suit my dreams. Now it seems I do the opposite, changing my dreams to suit my life as it is. Is that merely the difference between a child and an adult? Or is it the difference between someone who is living and someone who is dying?

Maybe tomorrow I’ll have something funny or witty to say.

I’m going to miss Amtrak when it goes, if this is indeed it for Amtrak. And whether you know it or not, you probably will too.

There have been times when I’ve had highly changeable travel plans, but plenty of time to kill when the opportunity to travel presented itself. So I would board a train at Washington’s Union Station, and arrive in downtown Worcester nine hours later. In those nine hours, I enjoyed time to myself, while reading a good book or two, enjoying some snacks and soda, and taking in some of the scenery, appreciating what a vast and wondrous nation I live in. All of this happened without security checkpoints, cramped seats, or restrictions on the use of portable electronic devices.

But even you’re the kind that uses the car for vacation travel if it’s too close to fly, you might still miss them. Amtrak also largely owns the railroad tracks of the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, and many of the regional rail transit services (SEPTA Regional Rail in the Philadelphia area, New Jersey Transit, MBTA Commuter Rail in Boston, MARC in Maryland) are run in part or in whole on Amtrak. Since Amtrak are responsible for maintaining the track in their areas, the results of an Amtrak shutdown would include at least disruptions to commuter rail service in many of those areas, if not an outright cessation of service.

As someone who follows the news, and the political winds, I have noticed another thing in the course of my years in Washington; Amtrak has never been profitable in a business sense, and in fact few noticed much until 1994.

It made sense to me, though, to have the option of travel by railroad for people with some time on their hands and uncertain travel plans (try getting a plane ticket on short notice without paying through the nose), or for trips short enough that plane flights made little sense for them. Every railroad passenger was someone who freed up an airline seat or highway lane for someone else whose trips were the sort for which one of those two options was a better fit. I saw it as something of a public good, though sometimes I wondered if it were long for this world.

In 1994, conservatives got control of Congress, and were immediately suspicious of so-called public goods, particularly those used most often by people not inclined to support them. Many of them turned their sights on Amtrak; some wanted it axed immediately, but they ultimately settled on the creation of a commission to determine how to “reform” Amtrak in such a way as to either become self-sufficient or go out of business, combined with a mandate to end all subsidies for Amtrak in 2002. This commission was then stacked with far-right ideologues like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation.

The end result was that Amtrak was given an impossible mandate of self-sufficiency.
If it were possible to operate a private passenger railroad, Amtrak would not have been created in the first place. Amtrak was created in the early 1970s as passenger rail outfits were failing. And if those railroads were failing then, when the suburbanization revolution was nascent, I can’t imagine they’d do well now with suburb-to-suburb commuting, for which mass transit is inherently problematic, dramatically on the rise.
The rail systems in Europe are generally subsidized, and efforts by the Thatcher government in Great Britain to “privatize” them did not fare well.

Just because the private sector isn’t willing or able to produce or continue to produce a good doesn’t make it worthless. One has to look at the benefits of Amtrak or a similar entity in terms of the entire transportation grid. Everyone on a train from, say, Washington to New York, is one less person driving on I-95, meaning less traffic congestion, fewer parking problems in the destination city, less pollution by the roadways, and less public money spent on road maintenance. It also means fewer people going through airport security, less clogging of the flight paths, and fewer congestion-related airport delays.

Another way of looking at the total picture is to imagine the alternatives to getting people to work every day, or from town to town when they have to travel on business or on leisure. Forcing people making short-haul city-to-city trips (say, trips to New York from Boston, Philadelphia, or Washington) into airports and onto airplanes has obvious drawbacks, especially after 9/11. So does steering them towards bus travel, even if you are able to overcome the considerable stigma on buses as uncomfortable, unsafe, and undesirably slow, since they would still be on the same highways they would be in cars, subject to the same traffic delays and still contributing to traffic congestion. And the more people that need to drive their own cars to work, the worse traffic gets, the more parking shortages become a problem, and the earlier commuters have to wake up and the later they are able to arrive at their homes.

A private company or concern thinks nothing of those benefits; it by necessity thinks only of its own bottom line, not because it is “evil” or “exploitative,” but because it’s incapable of valuing any good that do not contribute to its profitability. These secondary benefits might have some value if they could have profits attached to them, but in this case the value is realized by either the public as a whole, the government, or by other business entities.

Besides, it is ridiculous to ask for passenger rail to be 100% self-sufficient in a way that no other portion of the transportation grid is asked or expected to be. Would Congress ever dare to ask for the nation’s highway system to turn a profit, whether through fuel taxes or road tolls? Or, for that matter, is there much support for the proposition that the airlines to be able to operate through thick and thin without any government support of any kind?

Amtrak attempted to take steps towards this impossible goal of self-sufficiency by increasing its already excessive fares on its viable routes to the point where there was almost no reason to use the train rather than fly, and by mortgaging its last large asset, New York’s Penn Station. These actions left it with little in terms of real assets and a shrinking customer base amid an uncertain revenue stream. Even the tragic events of September 11, a golden opportunity to tout the advantage of rail transit in many city-to-city trips, couldn’t save Amtrak. All they had to show for it was a short-term increase in traffic brought about by travelers temporarily wary of using the airlines, an increase that quietly vanished in the face of fare hikes against a backdrop of renewed airline pricing wars.

The thinking in many quarters is that we’re better off letting Amtrak fail, and either ending passenger rail travel altogether or perhaps replacing Amtrak as we know it with a slimmed-down version. Well, I’ve already gone on at length about why the former is a poor option, unless you like hate passenger rail subsidies with such favor you’re willing to sit in ever-longer traffic jams, endure ever-longer and more unpleasant air travel, and eventually, pay more taxes to support increased burdens on the ground and air transportation networks. Many libertarians and conservatives are prone to thinking that no one will miss government entities if they were temporarily unavailable since all they do is waste taxpayer money anyway. Remember the 1995 “government shutdowns?”

Or, it is suggested, why not force Amtrak to jettison its admittedly unprofitable routes? After all, House Speaker Dennis Hastert does have a point when he says that it makes no sense to have a route from New Orleans to Los Angeles where passengers are subsidized to the tune of $350 per passenger. Why not at least force highly unprofitable passengers like that onto airplanes?

The political realities, however, are problematic here. Amtrak’s political viability depends on support from across the country – including places served by unprofitable routes. It is easy to imagine Amtrak not getting the political support it would need to survive if it were exclusively a Northeast service, which it might be if it were ever to be self-sufficient enough to make this administration happy. If Amtrak were to cut rail service between, say, Chicago and Seattle that stops at 10 places along the way, the members of Congress who represent those areas would suddenly have zero interest in supporting Amtrak. In addition, the operating deficits of the long-distance lines are accompanied with comparative low capital maintenance costs while the opposite is true of the Northeast Corridor.

It might be worth it to see what would happen if Amtrak were kept going if current management were given an opportunity to move rates closer to what a market might bear, to see if what would almost certainly have to be leisure travelers, would in fact stop riding cross-country if they were charged more in accordance with cost, and to see if Northeast Corridor service could in fact compete head-to-head with the airlines for both consumer and business travelers. It seems as if Amtrak CEO David Gunn is well regarded in most Washington circles. Maybe so few people use rail service in the West, South, and parts of the Midwest, that they’d hardly notice if Amtrak vanished, or raised its fares to meet the costs of serving those areas, which, it is assumed, would make them as prohibitively expensive as airplanes to/from rural areas are now.

I hope something is done soon, dear readers.

Thursday, June 20, 2002

Try this sometime, dear readers:

Take some strawberries, roll them around in some sour cream, and then rub the sour-cream-coated strawberries in brown sugar. It doesn't sound like it should taste good, but it does. (Thanx to my Aunt Lynda for convincing me to try this.)

World Cup fever has (sort of) gripped our nation. It took long enough; lots of people didn’t notice that the games were going on until the buzz over the Americans’ upset of Mexico in the Round of 16 hit a fever pitch. It didn’t help that, at least on the East Coast, the games were all either late, late at night or early in the morning.

So I am taking the plunge, to watch the U.S-Germany match tomorrow morning, to see if I can work myself into a frenzy over a sport I have heretofore found little to be enthusiastic about. In that sense I am a typical Ugly American. I’ve sort of thought of soccer (“football” if you like, I’ll use the term soccer since most of the people reading this would be Americans) as hockey without the ice and without checking. In other wordzzzzz….zzzzzz….

Which, in truth, makes me feel a little guilty. Soccer is the one major (luge is not major, you can sit down now, thank you for playing) world sport the United States doesn’t either dominate or at least rank among the world’s top countries, in large part because most Americans couldn’t care less. However, American fortunes appear to be on the rise, and many observers say that the sky’s the limit. Much of that is of course due to our size and our resources as a nation, though some of it doubtless attributable to our diversity as a country, with people of all backgrounds and interests living side-by-side. And nowadays, of course, there are impromptu soccer games all over the place, and the term “soccer moms” has become a political buzzword for affluent working mothers.

In one sense I am proud of our team’s run in this year’s World Cup, unprecedented in recent history. And you can sense the joy in Washington, this being one of the better soccer towns in the country, due in part to its international worldview and in part to its large Latino population. But I can’t help but feel a bit ambivalent about the U.S. becoming a world soccer power, if that is indeed what is going on here. (I don’t mean to make too much of the upset wins over Portugal and Mexico; after all, Poland, not exactly anyone’s idea of a heavy hitter, did clean the Americans’ collective clock.)

Remember that episode of “The Simpsons” where the Simpsons go to Brazil? Right before the lifeguard ordered Bart and Homer to put on thongs to walk on Copacabana Beach in Rio, Homer asked the lifeguards how he knew they were Americans. The next shot was of wearing a shirt with a picture of Uncle Sam devouring the Earth with the caption “TRY AND STOP US.” Brilliantly funny. There’s probably been too much post-9/11 commentary about how the world sees the U.S, so I’ll spare any further discussion in that view. Before I move on, I will wonder if American soccer success will make anti-American sentiment even more fashionable than it already is in Europe and Latin America.

I would imagine that most of the world’s soccer fans would argue that American fans don’t really “deserve” a World Cup, and I find it hard to disagree. It’s part of the reason I would gladly trade that Patriots Super Bowl win with a crown for the Red Sox – the market for the NFL in Boston is a bit soft, and what New Englanders are really pining for is that elusive World Series title. America just doesn’t need and wouldn’t appreciate a World Cup in quite the same way some other countries would.

I felt bad for Mexico; soccer was really the one thing they had on the gringos, and, for now, that’s gone. I have to think that’s damaging to the Mexican national psyche, far more so than yet another Mexican win over the U.S would have been for Americans.

Which is not to say I’m going to be rooting for the Germans on Friday. It makes it easy that I have no ethnic ties to Germany I know of, unlike Ireland, Sweden, England, or France.

Speaking of England, they seem to be back. I think it might have been fun for me to grow up English and an intense “football” fan. (Although knowing me I’d have shunned Manchester United and Arsenal for a Liverpool or a Chelsea, thus causing me to write the same angst-laden sports blogs as I do in this universe.) It would make the English ecstatic to finally get their revenge on the colonies if it ever got there – not that I really think England is going to get by Brazil, let alone the Finals, since the Americans and English are on opposite sides of the draw. From a third-world perspective, however, it would be pretty sweet to continue humiliating the English at a game they invented. (Come to think of it, the English are also regularly thrashed by their former colonies at cricket, another game they devised.) Plus the English love to say obnoxious things; apparently, they chanted at Argentine fans “Where is your navy? At the bottom of the sea!” Ouch.

I suppose it all doesn’t make up for centuries of colonial exploitation, but it’s a start. So is Senegal’s infamous upending of defending champion France, although the French team itself is made up by and large of players of African heritage. (Why is it so much fun to ridicule the French? Does anyone know?)

Does this all make me unpatriotic? I don’t know. And I don’t think it makes a difference, as the game is played on the field, not, dear readers, in my conflicted little mind.

Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Taxation Without Representation, Part Two:
Well, dear readers, in my previous blog, I had ominously warned you that the issue of voter representation in Washington, D.C. was on my mind.

The District of Columbia has about 575,000 residents, but nothing in terms of real Congressional representation. This is of course not news to anyone who lives in Washington, but I would guess it is surprisingly unknown outside the Beltway. In Congress, D.C. has the same essentially powerless representation as Puerto Rico or Guam, except that people in those territories pay no federal income taxes and D.C. residents do, as I made painfully aware every time I get a paycheck.

Congress has essentially veto power over District laws. It hasn’t been used a lot lately, but it has been used quite a bit over the years, and usually the charges to change the city’s laws have been led by members of Congress from rural, conservative states or districts where bashing Washington residents is or was popular. The best-known example was when the city council in Washington, a city with many gay residents then and now, often tried to repeal the laws against “sodomy” (i.e. non-standard penis-vagina heterosexual sexual activity) by consenting adults, laws in theory applicable to everyone but mostly used against gays. Congress would put the laws back on the books time after time, even as their own states increasingly repealed or invalidated them.

The city’s finances are controlled by committees in the House and Senate who have zero interest in making the city’s residents happy. A lot of the decision making there is done by the members who represent the suburbs in Virginia and Maryland, so ultimately some decisions are going to be made about how to run the District in the best interest of suburbanites. It’s as if the money you paid in taxes to your town were controlled by a group from the surrounding towns, with a few of people far away places who held a grudge against your town thrown in for good measure.

I would hope that generally, ordinary non-DC Americans, who haven’t much to gain or lose either way, when told of the situation, would like to see it corrected. Politicians, however, who do potentially have something to lose, particularly if they are Republicans, are a different matter. Washington is a largely poor and majority-black city, and the white population of the city, though generally well off, is in many ways as liberal-leaning, if not more so, as the black majority. Washington is a city where the Republican Party, the refuge of the old Southern segregationist whites abandoned by the Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s, the party that takes glee in deriding the federal government and its employees as incapable of doing anything right, the party of the “winner take all” society, is not very popular. For purely political considerations, the status quo – with D.C. residents essentially living in a colony – is essentially ideal for these people.

Usually, the opponents hide behind the Constitution. Article I says Congress is supposed to ‘exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) may…become the Seat of Government ’ as well as ‘like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the…State in which the Same shall be.’ So basically, Washington is supposed to be a Congressional colony according to this passage. Although the conflation one the one hand of the District, which in reality contains a good deal of private property as well as government property, with purely government property on the other, at least suggests that the idea of a half-million permanently disfranchised people living in the capital city was not contemplated by the Framers. And this provision is in no way inconsistent with reducing the size of the federal district to the point where it has no permanent population and either creating a new state out of the remainder or having Maryland absorb the remainder.

In 1961, things were improved slightly when Washingtonians were allowed to vote for the President and Vice-President under the 23rd Amendment. The District was restricted to a number of electoral votes equal to those of the least populous state, though that’s presently not really an issue, as Washington would get only one House seat if it were a state. The issue of Congressional representation was left unresolved.

And, of course, the Constitution used to say all sorts of things it doesn’t say anymore. It used to allow slavery, for one thing. Prior to the Civil War, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of Congressional representation by states that allowed slavery. For a period of about 14 years, Prohibition was written into the Constitution. That didn’t make slavery morally right, make a slave three-fifths of a human being, or make Prohibition anything other than an ill-advised idea whose utter failure was so obvious it was undone a few years later.

The opponents have other arguments. Sometimes they’ll point to longtime District Mayor Marion Barry and say “Look. They elected him. They can’t be trusted to elect good people.” I concede that Barry didn’t do much to make me proud to be my mayor. First of all, Marion Barry is gone. Even when he was here, in 1994, the last year he was elected as Mayor, some 45% of the voters voted Republican (something you can’t normally get District residents to do) to oppose Barry. And, most importantly, no one else’s voting rights are dependent on the demonstrated ability to elect “good people,” however one chooses to define that term. Why should ours? D.C. is the not the first or only city to have an incompetent chief executive. It’s not the first or only city to have a corrupt chief executive. (It may, be, however, the first city to have a chief executive with this strange and fascinating combination of the two.) Arizona has had two governors resign in disgrace amid corruption-related scandals in my lifetime, and yet no one says that as a result, Arizona ought not be able to send anyone to Congress. New York City has been bankrupt multiple times in its history, and yet no one spoke of disfranchising them.

You may look at the people you think D.C. might send to Congress – I’ve read some letters to the editor over the years saying things like “No D.C. Statehood! No Senator Marion Barry and Jesse Jackson!” - and yet this really no different from casting aspersions on the sort of people any other city or state in this country would elect.
For instance, you may not be crazy about the Senators D.C. might send to Capitol Hill. Well, I’m not crazy about the Idaho delegation, nor can I imagine being crazy about anyone Idaho would send to Capitol Hill should they need to replace anyone currently there on their behalf. It’s a big country, with lots of differing opinions of who sends “good” or “bad” elected officials. There isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be any difference, and to demand we honor the unfortunate historical accident that made the difference would be wrong.

I remember hearing George Will saying he felt comfortable about the disfranchisement of D.C. residents because so many of us are said to “live off” of the federal government and its largesse, and therefore a notion of limited government demands the exclusion of these people from voting for the legislature. Surely he would not extend this argument to military personnel, who are technically government employees and in the same sense “live off of government largesse.” Or to residents of the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, many of whom are employed by the federal government, which is increasingly moving its operations to those suburbs. If “independence from federal largesse” is supposed to be a criterion of who is allowed to vote in Congress, then we ought to look into disfranchising West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, among other states that habitually get more funds from the federal government than they contribute in federal tax dollars. Either that, or reinstituting property and/or wealth-based qualifications for the franchise; try promoting that one and see how far it goes.

Though most people are too polite these days to admit racism openly, there’s more than a bit of racism implicit in those some of these arguments. A lot of opposition to D.C. representation/statehood comes from the simple fact that it’s a black-majority city. They can’t be trusted to run anything, it is said. They’d just vote to grab more welfare, it is said. (Even if that were true, it would be no less true of poor minority populations in Baltimore or Chicago. Or for that matter, the rural poor in Kentucky or Arkansas. Or heck, the CEOs of big, often unprofitable, companies that get huge government checks for being well connected.) Is there any doubt that if Washington were lily-white, upper-class, and conservative-leaning, it’d be a state, or at least have a Congressional vote, by now?

Others claim it would disadvantage rural interests in Congress. Rural interests are already heavily over-represented in American politics. By definition, they get disproportionate representation in the Senate, since Wyoming has many Senators as California or New Jersey. The Electoral College system gives them a louder voice when electing the President as well; the wide swath of red (indicating support for Republicans) on the map on Election Night that so awed observers looks much less impressive when one realizes how few people are in many of those red states. Even in the House, on average, one would mathematically expect rural areas to be over-represented since even the least populous state can’t have zero representatives. It’s the main reason why our country has silly farm subsidies (which benefit large corporations far more than they do small farmers anyway) and sweetheart deals of public lands to miners and ranchers no private landowner would ever agree to. A State of D.C. would balance things out a bit, two votes in the Senate for a purely urban constituency, which would still be a drop in the bucket compared to the number of Senate seats representing exclusively or heavily rural populations. And it would go a long way towards leveling the political playing field with regards to racial representation; despite being over 10% of the population, African-Americans currently hold zero Senate seats. I’m not asking for strict race-based representation here, but 0% seems a bit low.

But the real issue remains. What we have is here constitutes a routine, flagrant violation of basic principles of civil rights and equality. Residents of the capital cities in all of the other Western democratic countries (and all 50 of the U.S. states too) have the same voting rights as voters outside the city limits. It makes no sense from any perspective that some half-million U.S. citizens are denied basic voting rights that other people take for granted, other than that of people who in some way benefit from such an injustice.

There will probably another blog on this topic, about what might be done, from a practical perspective.

Monday, June 17, 2002

Well, three days ago was Flag Day, one of those days that clutters the calendar but most people barely noticed. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if it were not for the fact that a group of activists decided to unveil a new proposed design for the flag of the District of Columbia.

The flag design looks a lot like the current flag, with the three stars on top, the three red stripes below them, and the white background. The difference is that the words “Taxation Without Representation” were written in large, bold white letters on the red stripes, which have been made slightly thicker to accommodate the writing.

To be honest, my first thought was “Wow, that’s tacky.” I like the idea of the flag as a proud, dignified emblem of a city, state, or nation. Big, bold lettering in a living language, particularly if it is an expression of political ideology, strikes me as unseemly. I thought almost the same thing when I first saw the D.C. license plates with the same phrase, “Taxation Without Representation” written on them, although for me at least it’s easier to be bothered by what you put on a flag since a flags seem to fly for eternity in one form or another while license plate slogans are changing all the time across the country. (Maryland and Virginia seem to have as many different designs of license plates as they do citizens.)

Then I thought, well, maybe it’s time for a little tackiness. There are times in life when you can’t be polite and get what you want. Sometimes you have to cause a scene, ruffle a few feathers, offend the sensibilities of someone who needs to be jarred from his or her little comfort zone. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is just one of those times, ugly and tacky flag be damned.

Take Stonewall. It was a riot, remember? If you want a laugh sometime, check out a copy of the Daily News’ article about the clash between the gays and the cops on Christopher Street that day. The paper treated the thing like it was some kind of April Fools’ joke. Those men weren’t polite, they didn’t just act meekly and submit to police efforts to shut down one of the few public places that would cater to them as they were, as an emerging community. (And if you’re gay and are disheartened by seeing people like John Ashcroft in important positions of power, read that article and know that no newspaper in the country would dare run an article like that today.)

Or take any of dozens of incidents during the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. There were arrests, there were water cannons, there were assassinations and kidnappings. It was an ugly chapter in our nation’s history, but there were thankfully enough people that had had enough and were willing to be, well, a little less polite than one might otherwise be.

I’m not going to advocate a riot on behalf of D.C. statehood, or representation. But I’m more than willing to suffer under a tacky flag if it helps.

I warn you, dear readers, this topic of D.C. disfranchisement has been on my brain lately. There probably will be a follow up.

Hmmm...well, a few words on the weekend that was...

Back to Square One on the job front. I must have read that interview 180 degrees wrong or something, since I got a rejection letter on Saturday after a Wednesday interview. Which given how efficient DC mail delivery can be, must have meant that they had essentially made their mind up they didn't want me the minute I left the office. Am I just that bad at reading people? Oh, this point I've never been able to hold down a real, responsible-adult-type job. If anyone has any ideas for me...please let me know. I am at this point seriously milling a radical change in career, since the longer I go without a job that moves me forward in the legal field, the harder it's going to be. I think I'm ready to admit that going to law school was probably a mistake; I just hope it doesn't turn out to be a life-ruining one.

In other news, I helped run a national high school championship tournament, held here at GW this weekend. There are, contrary to popular belief, a lot of bright, well-motivated teenagers out there. The experience was interesting but exhausting. More later...

Friday, June 14, 2002

The other day, I was blasting the radio in my townhouse during the “talk box” solo during Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way.” I really shouldn’t like it as much as I do. It screams 70s more than a white guy with an Afro wearing a lime green leisure suit waiting in a gas line to fill his baby blue Plymouth Fury with Regular. (That, or my hideous orange couch; take your pick.)

Everyone, I think, has his or her secret shames. Books, movies, TV shows, and especially songs that they by all rights should loathe for their inanity, their cheesiness, their fakeness, their bombast, or some other quality that would normally make them repulsive. I’m not talking about irony here, where some or all your enjoyment of the product is derived from a feeling of a smug superiority to it.

Here is a sampling of mine, in no particular order…

“Greg The Bunny.”
At some level, I knew it was dumb, and knew it would not be long for this world. But I kept laughing, at every sick joke of questionable taste they could throw at me. The idea of castrating a vicious dog and replacing his testicles with fake puppet eyeballs that play “Candy Man” (badly) is enough to put me in stitches. I can’t even explain why. And, while I acknowledge it’s cheap laughs, foul-mouthed puppets will make me laugh every time. Plus it had Scott Evil…er…Seth Green.

Tenacious D
I don’t think even Jack Black’s best friend would suggest they were actually “good” in the traditional sense. Too many tiresome dick jokes, among other things. And yet why do I have this urge to listen to “Explosivo” repeatedly?

“A View To A Kill”
Bad by James Bond movie standards, and I sort of put many Bond films in the “guilty pleasure” category to begin with. Tanya Roberts as a geologist? Grace Jones as a sexy Bond girl? Christopher Walken saves the movie by himself as an evil, pseudo-eugenic creation turned corporate bigwig. (Well, that and the theme song, and I am unsure how ashamed to be at liking Duran Duran.)

Bush (first two albums only)
I know, I know. Derivative riffs. Inane nonsense lyrics, which somehow made even less sense when slurred by singer Gavin Rossdale. Essentially unearned mega-stardom. The fact that Rossdale gets to boff Gwen Stefani of No Doubt. I don’t care. I long for the days when the band on the radio I was tired of hearing was Bush, rather than, say, Limp Bizkit. That stop-start thing (“Everything Zen,” “Greedy Fly,” “Swallowed”) will hook me in every time.

This is one fascinating TV show, a universe with such strange and yet intriguing parameters, characters that develop with a certain level of integrity, and messages about the balance between man and nature it’s hard to find fault with. I know it’s cheesy even by the standards of anime, its plots are too predictable, and it’s ultimately pretty silly. Not to mention I’m two decades older than its target audience. And yet I love it anyway. Go figure.

“Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)” by Phil Collins
I think it’s the drums. It’s gotta be the drums. I think you can get anything past my dreck detector, no matter how corny, with bombastic drum parts. Damn you, Phil. (I’d have listed “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” except that a song with lots of guitar work by Eric Clapton can’t be a guilty pleasure in my book.)

I know Bill Simmons loves this movie at face value, but I can’t agree with him. The women actors are annoying, the plot isn’t really believable (like the time he walks into the law school office and has a poker game figured out in one minute), and John Malkovich as a Russian mobster is painful. But putting Matt Damon *swoon* in a movie, especially one this enjoyably trashy, is a good way to get me to watch. Plus, while I wanted to strangle Edward Norton’s character, I have to admit he was convincing.

“The Dukes of Hazzard”
I loved this show as a child, and now have a hard time explaining that away. Maybe it’s because many Northerners secretly love thinking that rural Southerners are all brain-dead hicks who have nothing better to do than engage in an endless string of car chases. Plus I don’t think even New York City has to replace as many police cruisers as Hazzard County does. When I find it on TV, I can’t help but watch it (unless it was one of the crappy episodes with Coy and Vance the year that Tom Wopat and John Schneider were abducted by the evil aliens from the planet Contract Dispute.)

I might not be a straight guy, but I can still appreciate the trashy quality of a film whose most pivotal moment for the audience is Halle Berry taking her top off and showing her, um, berries. Not to mention silly, pointless plot twists, gratuitous car chases, and incredibly pretentious dialogue pompously delivered by John Travolta. The whole thing plays like it was scripted by a horny 15-year old computer nerd who has been up too many nights switching channels between Spice and dopey action movies. (Not that I could identify with that, mind you….)

“Close To You” by The Carpenters
Come to think of it, songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David were masters of the guilty pleasure genre. (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” “What The World Needs Now Is Love”) If there was a “Guilty Pleasure Hall of Fame,” they’d be in it, and so would Neil Diamond.

You know, dear readers, this is so much fun to write, I’ll have to do this again sometime…

Thursday, June 13, 2002

I told myself I wouldn't get too personal with these things.

But for the past couple of days, I feel wanted. I had my first job interview in months and I feel like I mentally connected with the man who interviewed me. I thought for the first time in a while "He wants to hire me, even if he ends up choosing someone else." That, and I met a very sweet and very attractive gentleman last night; we had burritos and ice cream and I took him to see the replica of Rome's Spanish Steps at 22nd and S and kissed him there - it all just felt so right, even as I ran out of things to say.

Now maybe for some of you, feeling wanted isn't that big a deal. But for me,'s special. It's been a tough past few months, both for lack of work and just this general feeling that nothing was ever going to work out for me. I went for many a day where every thought in my head was some variation on "No one wants me." I didn't write about it because I figured no one wanted to read an entire 1,000+ words of some poor shlub's self-pity.

So I'm cutting this one short. But not before saying that I have this feeling in my gut that my luck might just start to change.

So it’s official – the Houston Astros will be playing in Minute Maid Park, the new name for the Stadium Formerly Known as Enron. (Why are plays on the phrase “Artist Formerly Known as Prince” so inherently funny? I have no idea. But they just are.) Several bloggers (and Baseball Prospectus) beat me to the punch on nicknaming the place the “Juice Box,” but that’s life. I think it was the same phenomenon that caused thousands of liberals, from Bangor to Beverly Hills, to simultaneously think of the phrase “Contract on America” in 1994 or the Bermanism “Clarence ‘Uncle’ Thomas” back in 1991. Sometimes you have to work for your comedy, mining deep for hidden deposits of irony, and sometimes a sitting president will say something like “That depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” or do something like vomit on the shoes of a foreign dignitary.

Another one of my favorite insta-puns was based on the name “Enron Field.” Since the Astros created a bandbox of a ballpark highly conducive to run scoring (compare with the Astrodome, one of the best pitchers’ parks in the history of the game) “Enron Field” became “Ten-Run Field.” Yuk, yuk. I used the term before I had heard it said elsewhere, but it was used all over the place. If for no other reason, I’ll miss that name.

Which brings me to Enron itself. Late and unlamented, I think – although maybe I should check the some of the zillions of conservative and/or libertarian blogs out there just to make sure. Did the Bush II administration do favors on behalf of Enron? I don’t know. Did they spread so much money around in Congress that it was fair to say they “bought” votes? Hard to say. I do know one thing, though, an old piece of barnyard wisdom I think has largely been cast aside in recent years: Never let the foxes guard the henhouse.

For some reasons, the pundits and various Congress-critters made a big deal about whether this debacle was a “business scandal” or a “political scandal,” as if the two were mutually exclusive.

It’s not a “blow jobs in the Oval Office” kind of political scandal. It’s not a “selling arms to terrorists” kind of political scandal. It’s not a “third-rate burglary” kind of political scandal. In short, it’s not necessarily a “What did the president know and when did he know it?” political scandal. (That component may exist, but we’ll give the administration the benefit of the doubt for argument’s sake.) What it is, however, is a complete and utter failure, to a scandalous degree, of government to set and enforce ground rules in a way that private-sector entities are either unwilling or unable to do, leaving both investors and 401(k) holders high and dry. Just because there may not be one or more specific politicians (whether actual culprits or merely scapegoats or fall guys) to point the blame at does not mean there is no political scandal here.

The company, in this case Enron, had no incentive to play fair. The government wasn’t making them do it, and neither was the market, and neither were there any countervailing forces at work within the company. No one was watching the henhouse, except for the foxes, in this case the people that came up with all the names for those shell companies and dummy partnerships with names like Death Star and Chewbacca and JEDI. (I guess a have to give them a little credit – none of them were called Jar-Jar.)

Corporate board oversight is in most instances a farce; generally speaking, directors at a corporation fear that they will lose their seats (not to mention the opportunity to sit on other corporate boards, and further burnish their status as “business insiders”) if they don’t quietly accept whatever it is management wants to do.

The stockbrokers, who one might think should act in the interest of investors, actually have more to lose alienating companies by prying too close into their affairs. After all, they generally have more to gain underwriting stock or bond offerings by the companies. (Ask yourself how often you see “sell” recommendations coming out of brokerage houses. It’s part of what makes those new ads for Charles Schwab so funny and yet so sadly true.)

The accountants, who are suppose to conduct audits to ensure investors and shareholders that the company’s finances are sound, also have incentives to look the other way. Much has been made of the plight of Arthur Andersen, and while I shed no tears for them, their predicament could just as easily been that of the other accounting firms, since they had the same incentives to look the other way Andersen did. Why would an auditor risk losing more lucrative consulting services for his or her firm by auditing in a manner that might ruffle features?

So that leaves government regulation or oversight, which is considered in most circles outdated, unfashionable, and - worst of all - unpopular with focus groups. (Although beware; focus groups are the people who demanded that "The Scarlet Letter" be given a happy Hollywood ending.) But there were people in the Clinton administration, who, while they might not have seen this exact scenario coming, wanted to at least toughen up the rules on brokerage houses and/or accounting firms so that Enron-type stuff was both less likely and easier to catch early on and thus less damaging when the bubble breaks. They were rebuffed at every turn by a Republican-controlled Congress, aided and abetted by the accounting lobby.

I would say (as I admit I am often inclined to do) to blame the Republicans and move on. But it’s not nearly so simple, and come to think of it, rarely if ever is that simple these days. For one thing, most of the shady dealings in question here happened under Bill Clinton’s watch. For another, plenty of Democratic members of Congress (including everyone’s favorite moralizer, Joe Lieberman) were just as willing to force government to stand on the sidelines while the fat cats lined their pockets and the ordinary investors got fleeced. (Don’t get me started on the Democratic Party, please – you think this column is lengthy?)

Well, hopefully I cracked enough jokes in there to make the medicine-tasting political content go down smooth. My goal is to make my political columns the equivalent of Cherry Flavored Nyquil as opposed to that vile-tasting dark green crap they call Regular Flavor. Come to think of it, that’s a lousy metaphor; I’m not actually trying to put anyone to sleep. And with that, dear readers, it's time to emerge from my air-conditioned Answer Guy cave and re-introduce myself to the direct sunlight I need to keep my suntan, assuming it ever shows itself on an overcast day such as this one. As always, more later…

(This column dedicated to Larry Mitchell, my Corporations teacher and one of my favorite law professsors at GW, and if Larry’s reading this – thank you. And oh, yeah…HA! Pats rule! Jets suck!)

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

I am in an abusive relationship. My partner in this relationship never gives me any true pleasure, regardless of the unconditional love I have offered over the years. My emotions have been toyed with, my hopes aroused only to inevitably wind up with profound disappointment time after time. Part me wants to break it off, but I too blinded by senses of duty and loyalty to stay the course dreaming there will be some payoff down the round. I proudly trumpet my love for my abusive partner, even as some of my friends tell me I’m crazy for not ditching this relationship, while ridiculing and mocking me behind my back. I’ve been brought to tears, been reduced to throwing objects across the room, and made to believe I was destined for a life of eternal misery.

Damn you, Boston Red Sox.

Yeah, there’s still in first (although only by a half game now), with the best record in Major League Baseball. Yeah, they’re 7-4 against the Yankees. Yeah, they have the best ERA in the American League, the best batting average, near the top of the league in damn near everything, and yet I don’t trust them. I probably never will.

I am not Charlie Brown, I tell myself. I won’t fall for this again. I refuse to get invested in this, because I know I will get hurt, curse myself, and write more blog entries that seem bizarre to everyone but other people afflicted with terminal, chronic cases of Red Sox fever.

Yeah, right. Whatever. Go Red Sox!!!

More from Gentrification Ground Zero:

I actually went to two neighborhood meetings tonight, and they were needless to say very different. The first meeting focused on the corner and my neighbors. The second was about the larger neighborhood.

Some impressions about the first meeting:
Most of my neighbors are out for blood, so to speak. They don’t want compromises, they don’t want to talk it over with the family in question, they want ‘em gone. They had a whole laundry list of gripes – some of them legit (no wants open air drug dealing or massive trash dumps) and some of them petty (so they like to hang out outside – big deal.) The cops at the meeting suggest that the family is as tired of the drug dealing as everyone else; a neighborhood leader (white, BTW) seems to believe that the problem is bigger than this property.

The plan to chase this family away apparently involves getting the sanitation department to stop taking their trash (if there are as many people living there as the neighbors contend, city regulations require them to hire a private trash removal service, like an apartment building) and some kind of lawsuit based on something called the Nuisance Property Abatement Act. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but apparently if the property is a haven for crime, neighbors, with the help of the city, can levy heavy fines and penalties and taxes and whatever and force the owner-occupants out that way. So now there’s an effort to better track complaints about crime, noise, building code violations, etc.

Now, I’m all for neighborhood vigilance. I don’t suggest people tolerate violent crime. Or, really, any crime. I guess the noise bothers some people – I usually chalk it up to living in the middle of the city, and it’s not half as bad as it was when I moved here five years ago. Some of this stuff strikes me as a concerted effort to whitewash the neighborhood of longtime residents, who as far as anyone knows worked hard to have a home in a half-decent neighborhood back when no one like these people would have wanted to live there.

I have to think there’s a better way, and it might be up to me to find it before something happens. If this method works, then, the neighborhood comes that much closer to being another one of Washington’s many blah neighborhoods – and sooner or later, I end up with Mom. (I love my Mom, but still…) If it doesn’t work, it poisons the whole atmosphere and vibe of the area, and, well, makes my life more difficult since it might be assumed I had something to do with this. And, oh, yeah, the crime, noise, etc. stays the same or even gets worse – and I suffer more than most.

It’s really hard to separate perception from reality here. Everyone’s got an agenda. And I’m no exception. It’s funny how when you really look at life most times, it’s not clear who the good guys and the bad guys are.

Oh, well, dear readers, I do my best to observe words and the actions that speak louder than them, and call ‘em as I see ‘em. Signing off for now…more later.

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Sometimes I like to write about serious stuff. And sometimes I like to write about things like “The Price Is Right.”

Why TPIR, you ask? From a very young age, I watched that show. As a little kid, I wanted to be Bob Barker. Heck, I still wouldn’t mind being Bob Barker – he’s slipped a little, he sometimes messes up and I don’t think his hearing is so hot these days – but he’s still The Man as far as I’m concerned. Everyone adores him, he’s surrounded by beautiful women even at his age, and, well, every day he’s promoting a cause he believes in deeply – animal rights. (I’m not a hardcore PETA-type, mind you, but talk about a spokesman.)

So when I found myself waking up only moments before 11 this morning, I decided to watch TPIR for the first time in quite a while. Random observations…

Five pricing games – no winners. I don’t just mean no big winners, I mean literally nothing. No hair dryers, no $8.35 piggy banks, no spice racks, no nothing. So you just knew that the sixth pricing game was going to be either a 50/50-type proposition (Double Prices or Barker’s Bargain Bar) or something where it was almost impossible to win nothing (Plinko – few win anywhere near the maximum, but most people win at least $500 or so). Sure enough, a middle-aged black woman won a $4,525 electric scooter on Double Prices. This after winning a rocking chair/ottoman combo; these prizes looked like they were aimed at someone at least 15 years older than this woman.

For some reason, lots of gay men (come to think of it, I haven’t mentioned that I’m gay on here yet) share my love of TPIR. Maybe it’s the mixture of campy kitsch with the fact that there are lots of adorable young male contestants on the show. We can’t help thinking that a large number of these guys are on the show because they like to shop - something that, according to stereotype, is something that would indicate a man is gay since straight boys are supposed to hate shopping and therefore wouldn’t know the price of anything. Well, that, and every show features a military man in uniform, and every queer boy I know, whatever their politics or cultural background, goes ga-ga at the sight of a guy in a military uniform. Other than the Marine in full dress (“every inch a Marine,” Bob remarked), it seemed like a lot of the guys today’s show could have been gay. (I know there are gay Marines out there, but this guy for some reason didn’t look gay.)

Speaking of cute men, today’s first contestant got stuck playing Lucky Seven for a car. Blech. Lucky Seven is evil. This poor guy got the first digit on the money and still lost picking “5” twice. (For those of you who don’t know, Lucky Seven involves guessing the digits in the price of a car – for every number you’re off, you lose $1, and you get the car if after the last digit you haven’t lost $7 or more. Very hard to win.)

The worst game, though not featured today, has to be “Secret X.” If you do everything right, you still have a 1/3 chance of losing. (It’s a tic-tac-toe type game where you have to match where a hidden “X” is – you have two small pricing guesses to earn two guesses.)

One last thing…I sucked today. I’d have done just as badly as most of the contestants. I spent most of the time underbidding on the items up for bid; I have to remind myself that these are prices neither I or anyone else with a brain would ever be willing to pay for these products. (And on a few occasions I went overboard and overbid on a few items.) No way was that hideous sofa worth $1,600. No way would I ever pay $10.97 for a bottle of 120 calcium pills. (You get the idea.)

Anyhow, time for lunch and time to work on those cover letters for prospective employers. Cross your fingers, dear readers…more later.

Well, long time…no post. Sorry about that. Well, still no job, so that means more frustrating days of churning out resumes and cover letters and getting no responses. And of course, more time to pursue things like dating (more on that later) and neighborhood politics. Yay.

The neighborhood in question is called Adams-Morgan, and if you know DC geography, it’s a section of Northwest DC bordered roughly by U Street and Florida Avenue on the south, Connecticut Avenue and Rock Creek on the west, Harvard Street to the north, and 16th Street on the east. For more casual observers of Washington, it’s roughly due north of Dupont Circle. It is, in my opinion, the most vibrant, most diverse, and liveliest part of Washington. At least for now it is. There are bars and clubs for all kinds here, every kind of restaurant imaginable, and retail shops of several types. The neighborhood offers lots of urban conveniences - you can walk to a grocery store and most things are open late.

I was informed this evening that a local neighbor and property owner is starting some sort of campaign to remove my immediate neighbors from their house, which I understand they own. The occupants, an extended family, apparently have been asked to sell before, and been given what was apparently a generous offer, and have refused to accept it. I’m not sure what exactly this campaign entails, but it might involve pressure from various government agencies.

I have to admit I have mixed feelings about this campaign. On the one hand, they really aren’t the kind of people you want to have as neighbors. Their property isn’t especially well maintained. They leave lots of trash around. They accumulate trash in their backyard. (Actually, it’s not much of a backyard, just a patch of dirt with some junk on it.) Some family members and their friends hang out on the porch all hours of the night and are sometimes noisy – sometimes they crowd the street corner. Worst of all, they have some role in a drug market (pot, I think – one of my neighbors has alleged they deal crack though I have seen no evidence of that.) While I am not especially fond of the “War on Drugs,” I think having a drive-thru drug market near an elementary school is a terrible idea. Seldom does a day go by that I don’t worry about a deal gone bad that leads to the injury of death of someone on this street, maybe me, maybe a young child caught in a crossfire. (Thankfully, I know of no such violent crime in my nearly five years here.)

Looking at it from a “health of the city” perspective, well, it’s probably a good thing for DC to have higher property values, less drug crime, potentially less violent crime (especially around lots of children), and fewer poorly maintained eyesore properties. On the other hand, a big part of what makes Adams-Morgan such a wonderful place to live is that people from all walks of life and all different kinds of backgrounds can live side by side. If the unstated assumption behind this campaign is get all the riff-raff out, well, I’m afraid the end result will be another Georgetown, full of chain stores and tourists, prosperous for sure but actually pretty boring. In a city not exactly teeming with character-filled neighborhoods, it’d be shame if Adams-Morgan were totally sanitized. Though I haven’t brought it up yet, I suppose most of you have figured out that while most of the people moving into this area are, like me, white, my immediate neighbors, like many people being pushed out by gentrification in Washington and many other cities, are black. I’d hate to think I was aiding and abetting an effort to remove people who have been around in this city far longer than I have just because some people might be more comfortable with all white neighbors. This family grew up here, and their children, completely innocent as far as I know, live here. Hanging out on the front porch may not be what I grew up doing, but, well, I wouldn’t claim that everyone should adjust what they’re doing to my suburban social norms.

From a more self-interested perspective…well, I’m out of work and a tenant. I know that having neighbors like the ones I have means a lower rent. Heck, the presence of more people of limited means in the vicinity keeps rent down, since – let’s be frank here – there are probably wealthier people who’d be willing to pay much more in rent than I can afford to if they weren’t as skittish about some of their would-be neighbors. The more this community removes its less affluent residents, the higher rents and prices will go up. (And since I’m currently out of work, if this process happens quickly enough, I might be living with Mom again soon.)

Well, more on these developments later. Bedtime calls, dear readers. The Answer Guy will have more answers (but probably more questions too) next time around.

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